Blending history and anecdote, geography and reminiscence, science and exposition, the author of Krakatoa tells the breathtaking saga of the magnificent Atlantic Ocean, setting it against the backdrop of mankind's intellectual evolution. Until a thousand years ago, no humans ventured into the Atlantic or imagined traversing its vast infinity. But once the first daring mariners successfully navigated to far shores, whether it was the Vikings, the Irish, the Chinese, Christopher Columbus in the north, or the Portuguese and the Spanish in the south, the Atlantic evolved in the world's growing consciousness of itself as an enclosed body of water bounded by the Americas to the West, and by Europe and Africa to the East. Atlantic is a biography of this immense space, of a sea which has defined and determined so much about the lives of the millions who live beside or near its tens of thousands of miles of coast. The Atlantic has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists and warriors, and it continues to affect our character, attitudes, and dreams. Poets to potentates, seers to sailors, fishermen to foresters, all have a relationship with this great body of blue-green sea and regard her as friend or foe, adversary or ally, depending on circumstance or fortune. The author chronicles that relationship, making the Atlantic come vividly alive. Spanning from the earth's geological origins to the age of exploration, World War II battles to modern pollution, his narrative is epic and awe-inspiring.
Winchester calls this book a biography and uses the Shakespearean ages of man to frame the story of human interaction with the Atlantic through early history through modern day and into the near future. It's an interesting approach - treating this geological feature as a living entity that changes and grows and ages - that allows for discussion of how *we've* changed in our thoughts, beliefs and uses of the Atlantic. This approach runs the risk of anthropomorphizing an inanimate collection of chemistry, geology and biology, but Winchester doesn't fall into that trap. The book's more about us than about the ocean.
The other risk of such a work is the potential for descent into polemic. Any discussion of the history of human interaction with the Atlantic naturally has to touch on climate change and the impact of centuries of sometimes thoughtless or uncaring use of the resources there. Winchester doesn't flinch from subjects like the annihilation of cod fishing off Newfoundland from incredibly stupid resource management, but he also tells when the opposite is true - like the protection of the fish marketed as Chilean sea bass off the Falkland Islands. There's also a nice discussion of documentable changes in the Atlantic that are related to warming in the atmosphere and water and how these changes affect human both on the water and on land; this discussion stays factual and makes it clear that there's a lot we don't understand about the connection between greenhouse gas buildup and changes in the Atlantic, but also clearly makes the point that there is indeed a connection.
At the end of the day, Winchester leaves the Atlantic in an unknown place. We don't know what the end result of human-induced changes will be. We don't know how natural cycles will affect the ocean as we know it now. We seem to be changing our priorities in interacting with the ocean and in how we manage resources, but it may be too late to fix some problems. Ultimately, though, the Atlantic will be here long after we are - until the continents shift enough to rearrange the face of the Earth.
but across time itself. It is not only a personal journey of the authors to
first cross and then understand this body of water, but a story of the life of the
sea and those whose lives are linked to it.
Some of the most interesting points for me were the historical facts surrounding
the discovery of America itself. The men who crafted the boats that made their
way across what was then a much more treacherous body of water than we have today.
More treacherous only because it was so unknown. Although the Atlantic is still
a force to be reckoned with, we do know and understand her a bit better.
A map found in the fifties first seemed to point to the fact that it was the Norse to find America
first. This map ended up in the hands of Yale university, and this is where the real controversy began.
Soon more maps and copies of a document drawn in 1570 was more important and more easily confirmed to be valid.
Further investigation , years later.. found a Norse settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland, of what
were obviously Norse ruins. There was much here that I did not know. Amerigo Vespucci of course takes the prize, as North and South America where given his name after he publishes his account of a new continent being discovered, not just a bit of land or an island.
The author manages to tell the tale of an ocean with style. Often amusing and always able to hold onto the readers interest. He brings forth poetry, art and even music as being influenced by the great Atlantic. Shakespeare himself is given credit for the Atlantic's role in his play The Tempest.
We hear about islands once mapped that never existed. We are reminded of the effect of the Atlantic on business.
Who for instance looks out onto that great expanse and thinks of the cables laid beneath the water?
Finally, we are reminded that the world today is so much smaller than it once was. An unmapped body of water that was once unknown, is now crossed daily both by air and on the sea itself. Where once great and fearless explorers left their home ports to see if it was true that they might fall off the edge of the earth, today teenagers make ill advised crossings on their own. Or, at least make the attempt.
Even though today we have learned so much more than was known when the Norse and the Spanish explorers made their way across its waters, the Atlantic is still a force to be reckoned with. Even though we now have the tools to find most of her secrets, I suspect that there will always be a few left for generations to come to discover. I confess that I never gave much thought to the life of the sea itself. Any musings I have had were centered on the life within the sea or around it. Reading this book by Winchester has opened up a whole new perspective for me.
Finally, we see how climate changes are affecting the Atlantic and thus the planet. I suspect that this is
one of the reasons this book was written. WE need to acknowledge and try to understand that the effects that we have on the planet are fall from small, and will most likely have some serious effects on our way of life before much more time has passed.
It's not that he hasn't dug up fascinating facts and interesting tidbits. It's just that it feels like he took all his notes on 3x5 cards, then threw them in a pile on the floor and wrote the book like that. I'm reading an interesting description of St. Helena, and then there are poems? A passing mention of how the first people to lay undersea cables were woefully unprepared for the peaks and valleys of the ocean floor, ok, yes, that's interesting tell about the problems that caused. No wait, now we're talking about Benjamin Franklin. The ocean as a lover? Oy.
That said, the author once again makes what could have been a dreary, boring tale of statistics into an intimate and interesting story, using the Seven Ages of Man as his controlling metaphor. This reader, at least, was pulled along and found very few dragging spots.
Among other aspects of the Atlantic, Winchester discusses the slave trade and the destruction of the Outer Banks cod fisheries--for both of which mankind should be deeply ashamed--to demonstrate mankind's more disgusting uses of what should be one of our greatest treasures.
All in all, a worthwhile read. I could have done with much more about the flora and fauna, but that's my own prejudice.
I hate writing this review, because until now he was my favourite popular historian.
I must admit I only reached page 148. Look at the Amazon reviews; that's a typical place for abandonment.
Atlantic covers the military history, from the Vikings to the Spanish to raiders including the illustrious saga of the Graf Spee in WW2. It covers the natural history from it's creation upon the breakup of Pangaea, and forecasts the ocean's demise when the continents once again collide to form Pangaea II. Environmental history is also discussed, including the overfishing that has killed the Grand Banks and other formerly productive fisheries. Winchester also tells us various odds-and-ends, about the remote island of St. Helena where an exiled Napoleon died, about the terrible seas of Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego. About Charles Darwin's journey -- and the disastrous American equivalent, the "Ex Ex." Winchester also laments how air travel has shrunk this once-formidable barrier to an almost-trivial entity thanks to high speed air travel.
Flowery prose annoys me, and Winchester uses way too much of it. Bits and pieces were of interest, but overall, it is non-fiction brain candy -- I didn't really learn anything new from this book. This is, however, partly because of the realization that I am already highly educated when it comes to this particular body of water -- I"m not so sure I could say the same regarding a similar book written about any other ocean. If you're not sure whether or not you fully understand this great body of water, then give this book a shot.
In general, however, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed what Winchester did choose to include as well as the framework he created for it.
Winchester's decision to focus on the relationship between man and Atlantic Ocean may seem wise or even necessary considering the immensity of the topic but I found that it limited his ability to write about what he is best at. As a geologist with an abiding love of the English language, it's been said that Winchester's words can breathe life into rocks but can also turn humans to stone. In 'Krakatoa' and 'A Crack in the Edge of the World' his descriptions of the natural forces precipitating the explosion of Krakatoa and the San Francisco earthquake have left indelible visual images in my mind years after reading them. What he said about the people involved and their activities, though, I have largely forgotten.
The Atlantic Ocean has always inspired a sense of excitement. It is the source of so many great stories. The book's subtitle, 'Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories', certainly wants us to believe that all this is in store if we only plop down our money and buy the book. Does the book tell of battles, discoveries and storms? Yes. Do Winchester's descriptions make them sound great, heroic and titanic? Sadly, no. Unfortunately, Winchester is not an author who is likely to gain many fans from impatient readers. I found the first half of the book almost tedious which is amazing considering how many of the Atlantic's stories are really thrilling.
The bottom line is that I found 'Atlantic' informative, but not inspiring. My recommendation to prospective readers is to pick a subject you are interested in and find a book that better addresses it. If you are interested in storms, read Junger's 'Perfect Storm'. If New World settlement interests you, read Philbrick's 'Mayflower'.
What follows is not a linear narrative but one replete with historical triumphs and tragedies, heroism and mundane existence and Winchester's personal anecdotes all residing near or within the waters of this great ocean.
Though it ends on a rather pessimistic note about the environmental fate of the Atlantic in recent years, there is something eternal in the fact that this immense body of water ever existed at all and, as with every living thing, will cease to exist again.
Winchester's nexus is a body of water, but it works the same way. Bored with one topic, 20 pages later you're on to a new one.
I don't have anything against these kind of books, but, as the saying goes, "too many books, too little time". The only reason I read this one was Winchester's formal training as a geologist and his enjoyable The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, a biography of biostratigraphy's inventor.
And I wasn't disappointed. Winchester frames his story between the Atlantic's geological past and its projected future. In between, using the conceit of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, we get the story of that ocean's influence on science, exploration, business, and warfare. That means, among other things, slavery, pirates, oceanography, whaling, Vikings, Basques, Spanish colonization, submarine warfare, Trafalgar, transatlantic flights, shipping containers, and the Skeleton Coast,
My favorite parts were, besides the geology, the business section with the American development of packet ships and the laying of the first transatlantic submarine cables. I was also entertained by Winchester's personal reminisces of being a geology student literally stranded in the wilds of Greenland with the prospect of wintering there and a gloating Argentinean naval officer he met while imprisoned during the Falklands War.
But it was all well written with no section too long to wear out your patience -- or satisfy a deep curiosity on a subject. That's the nature of these books.
Winchester does address a couple of important contemporary issues. He gives an account on how the Newfoundland Bank cod fishery collapsed and the possibility of other fisheries being protected on the model of the British administration of the waters around South Georgia Island. He gives a nuanced look at the possible perils of global warming - while not unskeptically throwing his lot in with the anthropogenic warming crowd or faithfully thinking that carbon trading will work. He also shows, whatever the truth about global warming and its cause, it doesn't seem well linked to increased incidence of hurricanes.
I was reading the ebook version of this and the editing was a bit off in places - wrong words sometimes and a puzzling use of 'her' to refer to George II at one point!
Overall, an interesting read, but with a background level of irritation which stops it being a really good one.
Winchester first choose to view the ocean as a living thing, not too unusual as mariners regularly take this view. But then Winchester hits on the brilliant idea to frame the Atlantic ocean in the seven ages of man. These ages were described in a monologue by William Shakespeare's character, Jacques, in As You Like It.
These ages are:
Infancy - first stirrings of human development on its shores
Childhood - crossings and full fledge explorations
Lover - the ocean beauty in art and literature
Soldier - centuries as a stage for warfare
Justice - basis of trade and international law
Old Age - crossings are routine and resources no longer inexhaustible
Mental dementia and death - climate change and humanity's change
In each of these stages Winchester mixes the broad perspective with anecdotal stories to enliven the story and provide the reader with interesting facts.
In summary, Simon Winchester has succeeded in taking on the story of the Atlantic.
Winchester shows the growth of connections (ships, cables, planes) between Europe and America but neglects to mention that the Atlantic acts as a huge barrier. Trade within America and within Europe is massively larger than the trade between those regions. The biology of the Atlantic is also not given sufficient space. What are the highlights and specialties of that ocean? Compared to the more intimate portraits of the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic described by Winchester remains an amorphous and indistinct beast.
Overall, a very weak effort. Winchester is coasting off into the sunset.
I really liked this book.
The introduction of the book starts with a peculiar anthropomorphic approach to "the life cycle" of the ocean, which leads to the illogical conclusion that if it has a life (cycle) it might as well have its biography written. This circular type of illogical reasoning seems another attempt of the author to please the editor who probably made that suggestion. The chapter that describes the "birth" of the ocean, with its predictable echoes of other works by Winchester about the "life" or "birth" of geological phenomena, is the most mechanical and boring.
However, in the other chapter, the author brings together an encyclopaedic wealth of knowledge and details about the Atlantic Ocean as the setting or background to historic events from the earliest archaelogical records to the present. Naturally, there is an enormous wealth of material to choose from, describing the travels of the Phoenicians, Vikingsto the history of the great seafaring nations. There are also chapters devoted to the weather, biology of maritime life and the effects of global warming.
Another peculiar characteristic displayed by the author is the tendency to write himself into the narrative. The book does not exactly follow a historical timeline. Rather, it starts with the earliest travel experiences of the author in the early 1980s near Cadiz, which ties together the narrative from the Isles of Mogador to the Phoenicians and the Greeks and Romans passing out beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Later on in the book, attention turns to what should be a black page in British history, the Falklands War in 1982. Are these personal touches there for the author, or are they supposed to create a sense of personal experience?
Still, Simon Winchester has a magnificent command of his maretial and a wonderful writing style. Given that it would be impossible to describe all of the history that accurred around the sea boards of the Atlantic Ocean, the author brings together a both recognizable and novel, original choice of historical data, with a perfect balance between overall, global developments and a myriad of detail. Both American and European history are involved, particulary from the point of view of trade, shipping, travel and communication by various means, both shipping and air travel.
In sum, Simon Winchester has done it again. Atlantic. A vast ocean of a million stories is a huge, and hugely readable book, offering somethin of interest to virtually every reader, provided they enjoy reading, and can handle a book that it itself encompasses an ocean of reading material.