Until a thousand years ago, the Atlantic was a just a fog-covered, watery boundary at the end of the world. When death-defying sailors finally penetrated into secrets, whole civilizations changed direction. In his "biography of the ocean," Simon Winchester paddles across distant seas to retrieve forgotten stories of plunder, heroism, natural disasters, naval battles, shipwrecks, and rescues. Another eye opening, absorbing narrative by the author of The Map That Changed the World and Krakatoa.
Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, returns to the natural world with his epic new book, a "biography" of the Atlantic Ocean, from its origins 370 million years ago through the population of its shores by humanity and their interactions with it. He sees the Atlantic as the vital ingredient in the blooming of Western civilization. He scrutinizes the early explorations from the Vikings and Norsemen through Columbus, detailing the perils of the open sea. With his excellent research and engrossing anecdotes about the ocean as "a living thing," Winchester spotlights its inspiration on poets, painters, and writers in its majestic beauty. Although he does not neglect the chief tragedies of the Atlantic, like the slave trade and the maritime battles, Winchester occasionally flits beelike from scene to scene, and the facts become lost in a blur. Maybe this is the price for such a monumental undertaking. Nevertheless, Winchester's sea saga is necessary reading for those who want to understand the planet better, even as, he notes, our waters are rapidly changing from pollution, overfishing, and climate change. 44 b&w illus.; 4 maps. (Nov.)
“Winchester brings a knowledge as vast and deep as his subject to this history of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Library Journal - Booksmack!
As much as Bryson's collection is about science, it is also about biography and history. On that note, fans who appreciate Bryson and company's wide view of a topic should find Winchester's blend of science, story, and biography, as he tells the tale of an ocean, a good next read. Winchester writes with the same open invitation to readers to join him in exploration, and he also offers that bedrock sense that something amazing has happened and we are all lucky to get a chance to experience it. In his exploration of the Atlantic Ocean, Winchester covers epic episodes of history as well as the creation of the sea and its future. This is a massive and sustaining story. Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads", Booksmack!, 12/2/10
How does one attempt to write a biography of a subject as old and vast as an ocean? Driven by a lifelong fascination with the Atlantic, Winchester (The Professor and the Madman) found inspiration in viewing the ocean and our relationship with it through the categories of Shakespeare's seven ages: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, old age, and second childhood. Employing a mixture of history, science, and anecdotes from both sides of the Atlantic, he envisions the ocean's birth and eventual death and explores how its boundaries were discovered and defined, the many ways it has affected the development of human society (artistically, militarily, industrially), and humanity's effect on it in turn. Though the sheer size of the subject obviously limits how much of the Atlantic's "life" can be related in a single volume, Winchester does an excellent job at presenting an extensive collection of the most interesting parts of its existence. VERDICT Winchester is in fine form, and his typically engaging style creates a vibrant portrait of an ocean that remains endlessly fascinating. Highly recommended, especially for those who have enjoyed the author's previous works. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/10.]—Kathleen McCallister, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia
The prolific journalist and historian returns with a story both geographically immense and profoundly personal.
Winchester (The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, 2008, etc.) offers a tale about the Atlantic Ocean that is variably genial, cautionary, lyrical, admonitory, terrifying, horrifying and inspiring. He begins with a memory from 1963—his youthful transatlantic crossing aboard the passenger liner Empress of Britain—and returns to the birth of the Atlantic, perhaps 540 million years ago, providing a John McPhee–like history of its formation and development. Winchester then looks at humans' "infant" acquaintance with the ocean, noting that people first settled its shores about 164,000 years ago on the western coast of Africa. They soon ventured out on the ocean, then endeavored to cross it—the Irish could have done it, he says, but there's no hard evidence. The author chronicles the stories of Leif Eriksson, John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci, and notes that the "schoolboy" phase of the Atlantic's life includes our attempts to understand it—to chart it, measure it, discover its mineral, vegetable and animal bounties and puzzle over its mysteries. For the "lover" phase of the Atlantic's history, Winchester sails across centuries of literature, art and music that in some sense celebrate the ocean. The "soldier" phase involves warfare on and around the Atlantic, from the Vikings to the Falklands. The "justice" section examines maritime laws of various sorts, from fishing to trade to communication. The concluding chapters deal with the depletion and pollution of the ocean, and the author projects a tone of both dire warning and feathered hope. Throughout, Winchester sprinkles passages of personal history, none more powerful than the epilogue about Namibia's Skeleton Coast, "a place so named because of all the skeletons, of both men and the vessels in which they had wrecked."
A lifetime of thought, travel, reading, imagination and memory inform this affecting account.
Simon Winchester is one of those maddeningly gifted British writers who could probably write the history of mud and make it fascinating…Now comes Atlantic, which he describes as a "biography" of the ocean. Has he finally overreached himself? Perhaps. But what a rollicking ride he gives us anyway…What's best about Winchester's writing is his mischievous eye for the irresistible detail.
The Washington Post