Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

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"From Simon Winchester, the author of the bestsellers Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"---Time) and The Professor and the Madman ("Elegant and scrupulous"---New York Time Book Review), comes the immense and thrilling story of the world's most mysterious and breathtaking natural wonder, the axis of western civilization: the Atlantic Ocean." "Atlantic is a biography of a tremendous space that has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists, and warriors, and continues profoundly to affect our character, attitudes, and dreams. Poets

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Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

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Overview

"From Simon Winchester, the author of the bestsellers Krakatoa ("A mesmerizing page-turner"---Time) and The Professor and the Madman ("Elegant and scrupulous"---New York Time Book Review), comes the immense and thrilling story of the world's most mysterious and breathtaking natural wonder, the axis of western civilization: the Atlantic Ocean." "Atlantic is a biography of a tremendous space that has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists, and warriors, and continues profoundly to affect our character, attitudes, and dreams. Poets and potentates, seers and sailors, fishermen and foresters---all have had a realtionship with this great body of gray and heaving sea and regarded her as friend or foe, bridge or barrier, depending on circumstance and fortune. Winchester chronicles that relationship, making the Atlantic come vividly alive. Spanning the ocean's story from its geological origins to the age of exploration, from World War II battles to today's struggles with pollution and overfishing, his narrative is epic, intimate, and awe inspiring." "Until a thousand years ago, few humans ventured into the Atlantic or imagined traversing its seemingly limitless expanse. But once the first daring mariners successfully navigated to its far shores---whether they were Vikings, the Irish, the Basques, John Cabot, or Christopher Columbus in the north, or the Portuguese and the Spanish in the south---humankind's view of the world swiftly evolved to encompass this vast body of water, bounded by the Americas to the west and by Europe and Africa to the east. Much as the Mediterranean had been the center of classical civilization, Winchester argues, the Atlantic became the axis of Western civilization, upon which the power and influence of the modern world have been defined and determined." Atlantic is the summation of Winchester's years of research and travel---from the rocky outcrops of the Faroes to the effervescent ports of Argentina and Brazil to the slave castles of West Africa and the seaside villages of Ireland. More than a mere history, this is an unforgettable journey of unprecedented scope by one of the most gifted writers in the English language.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.

Publishers Weekly
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.)
Entertainment Weekly
“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
Library Journal
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
Kirkus Reviews

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.

Ken Ringle
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
Entertainment Weekly
“Winchester brings a knowledge as vast and deep as his subject to this history of the Atlantic Ocean.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

Bernard Bailyn, the Harvard professor who presided over the birth of "Atlantic History" as a spry little subdiscipline in the 1980s, once confessed that he knew of no one who was "poetically enraptured by the Atlantic world." It's safe to say that Bailyn had never met Simon Winchester. In his new Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, Winchester's vigorous "biography" of the body of water known at different times as the Ethiopian Ocean, the Mare Glaciale, and (oddly enough) the Ocean Sea, is virtually Byronic in its length and devotion. Mention the names of a string of middling coastal towns -- Esbjerg or Vigo, Takoradi, Walvis Bay, or Puerto Madryn, Wilmington or Halifax -- and where most would hear the very definition of back-water obscurity, for Winchester they're the very stuff of oceanic poetry.

Indeed, if the picture most of us have of the Atlantic is bracing and austere, these very qualities were what led Winchester to an almost boosterish argument for its inherent pelagic superiority. The Atlantic, after all, is "the classic ocean of our imaginings, an industrial ocean of cold and iron and salt. A purposeful ocean of sea lanes and docksides and fisheries, an ocean alive with squadrons of steadily moving ships above, with unimaginable volumes of mysterious marine abundance below. It is also an entity that seems to be somehow interminable."

What Winchester dubs his "ocean romance" began at the age of eighteen, when he inexpensively crossed westward on a seven-day passage from Liverpool to Montreal aboard the Empress of Britain, one rung above steerage. It was 1963, a crepuscular year for transatlantic steamship travel: before long, the Empress of Britain would be out of the passenger-carrying business, a casualty of the boom in airline travel across the Atlantic -- travel that has become so mundane as to strip away all the awe the ocean had inspired for centuries. (Today, Winchester gets no kick in a plane: high over the mid-Atlantic in one of those "little seven-mile-high cities in flight," he muses, "How sad, I thought, that so vividly remembered a place should have so quickly transmuted itself into something little more than an incommoding parcel of distance.")

Restoring that sense of awe is part of Winchester's calling in Atlantic, a challenge he accepts with swashbuckling zeal. A natural storyteller trained as a geologist, Winchester must be the only writer who can boast of having worked in the field in Greenland in 1965 and being interned as a journalist during the Falkland Islands conflict in 1982. Both experiences serve him well, as he narrates the natural history of the Atlantic -- an ocean that is somewhere near the halfway point of what will be its 370 million year life span -- as well as the naval campaigns that seem to have reached a certain finality in the South Atlantic war between Britain and Argentina. In between is a lively history of waves of conquest and commerce, one that involves familiar names, certainly (think Columbus & Co.) but is nimbly told nevertheless. Winchester voyages through centuries of long-distance trade, beginning with the Phoenecian search off the Moroccan coast for the mollusk responsible for a resplendently royal purple-crimson murex dye, up to the recent decimation of the Great Banks cod industry by fleets of colossal trawlers. These depredations are fired by the "delusions of perpetual abundance" that are a collateral effect of the myth of the ocean's endless bounty.

The book mixes sweeping accounts of economic and political phenomena -- slavery, empire, globalism, the rationalized business of Atlantic exploration and its later industrialization -- with morsels of trivia: how future Israeli president Chaim Weitzmann's assistance in helping the British navy make much-needed acetone may have helped secure the Zionist cause; how Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown became the first airmen to cross the Atlantic nonstop in 1919, accompanied by two little black cats named Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim; how the Patagonian toothfish found gastronomic acceptance and a potential for extinction when it was rechristened Chilean sea bass.

The general and the specific complement each other nicely in Winchester's book, which sacrifices neither close detail nor wide angle for the sake of the other. Slightly less well balanced are Winchester's ever chipper voice, as sunny and cheerful as his grinning countenance on the book's back cover, and the at times melancholy tone regarding the new mundanity of the Atlantic in the age of global travel and global warming (of which Winchester is lightly skeptical, adopting an unfortunately cavalier posture that is a rare sour note in the book). But who can resist the evocativeness of Winchester's nostalgic ode to good old-fashioned oceanography, a place and time before "the knife-sharp winds, the smell of fish and Stockholm tar, the coils of rope, the flap of sails, the keening of gulls, and the thud of marine engines made way for the hum of machines and air-conditioning and the silky sounds of laser printing." At moments like this, Atlantic re-enchants an ocean that Winchester argues has lost its magic. And you don't even have to be from Esbjerg to appreciate it.

--Eric Banks

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061702587
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/2/2010
  • Pages: 495
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester's many books include The Professor and the Madman, The Map That Changed the World, Krakatoa, and A Crack in the Edge of the World. Each of these has been a New York Times bestseller and has appeared on numerous best and notable lists. Mr. Winchester was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by HM The Queen in 2006. He lives in western Massachusetts.

Biography

One of the leading practitioners of the offbeat, narrative nonfiction genre The New York Times affectionately calls "cocktail-party science," Simon Winchester studied geology at Oxford, worked on offshore oil rigs, and traveled extensively before settling into a writing career. For twenty years, he worked as a foreign correspondent for the Guardian, augmenting his income by writing articles and well-written but little-read travel books. Then, an obscure footnote in a book he was reading for sheer recreation sparked the idea of a lifetime.

The book in question was Jonathon Green's Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made, and the footnote read, "Readers will of course be familiar with the story of W.C. Minor, the convicted, deranged, American lunatic murderer, contributor to the OED." Immediately, Winchester knew he had stumbled on a real story, one filled with drama, intrigue, and human interest. Published in 1998, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Oxford English Dictionary was an overnight success, garnering rave reviews on both sides of the pond, and remained on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list for more than a year.

Fueled by curiosity, passion, and a journalist's instinct for what makes "good copy," Winchester has gone on to explore the obscure, arcane, and idiosyncratic in blockbusters like The Map that Changed the World, Krakatoa, and The Man Who Loved China. Coincidentally, his subjects have placed him squarely in the forefront of the new wave of nonfiction so popular at the start of the 21st century. In an interview with Atlantic Monthly, Winchester explained the phenomenon thusly: ""It shows, I think, that there is deep, deep down -- but underserved for a long time -- an eagerness for real stories, real narratives, about rich and interesting things. We -- writers, editors -- just ignored this, by passed this. Now we are tapping into it again."

Good To Know

Winchester once spent three months looking at whirlpools on assignment for Smithsonian magazine.

He once wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times to correct a factual error in an article about where the millennium would first hit land on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000. (It was the island of Tafahi, not the coral atoll Kirabati.)

He reportedly loves the words "butterfly" and "dawn."

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    1. Hometown:
      New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 28, 1944
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      M.A., St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, 1966
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations

Preface The Leaving of Liverpool 1

Prologue The Beginnings of its Goings on 29

Chapter 1 From the Purple Isles of Mogador 51

Chapter 2 All the Shoals and Deeps Within 99

Chapter 3 Oh! The Beauty and the Might of It 149

Chapter 4 Here the Sea of Pity Lies 207

Chapter 5 They That Occupy Their Business on Great Waters 273

Chapter 6 Change and Decay all Around the Sea 329

Chapter 7 The Storm Surge Carries all Before 395

Epilogue Falls the Shadow, Fades the Sea 441

Acknowledgments 461

A Glossary of Possibly Unfamiliar Terms 465

Bibliography 469

Index 479

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 51 )
Rating Distribution

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(11)

4 Star

(15)

3 Star

(9)

2 Star

(11)

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(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 51 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2010

    Solid Read

    This is a solid read for anyone interested in a broad history/geography of the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone fascinated by isolated islands, plate tectonics, and transportation will enjoy this book.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2010

    Not recommended

    Full disclosure - I did not finish the book, I didn't even make it very far. I got too hung up on poor scholarship presented as incontrovertible fact and lost faith that what I was reading was a history of the Atlantic as opposed to a yarn that may be interesting to fans of florid prose but wouldn't let facts get in the way of a good story. The realization (over multiple examples in the first few tens of pages) that I just couldn't trust what was in here ruined it for me.

    6 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 9, 2011

    A Disappointment

    A lot of good information, but the presentation lacked. The author had a penchant for run-on sentences replete with commas, dashes, colons, semicolons, etc. that was very distracting. I found myself reading some sentences two or three times before getting the meaning out of them. Also, there were far too many grammatical lapses and factual inaccuracies for a finished publication. I don't know whether this is the fault of the author or the publisher, but such should not happen. Hire some proofreaders! Further distracting was the author's use of obscure English words, when simpler wording would have made the text more readable. If he was showing off his command of the English language, he overdid it. At least in my opinion.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2011

    An ocean of information

    Extremely informative and well written. I'm pretty well read, but Winchester used a ton of words i had never seen before. I used my Nook dictionary overtime.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 19, 2011

    Great book by a master storyteller

    I love Simon Winchester's books. He's one of those few authors that you read anything they write just because it's written by them. I also happen to like the way he reads his audiobooks, so if I find him in audio I have no issue having him tell me what he has to say.

    "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories". Wouldn't you pick a book with that massive title when it is written by one of your favorite authors? I sure did!

    Winchester is a geologist and he tells his story about the Atlantic Ocean from every possible perspective. He narrates it since the formation of this body of water, when it became a creek between Africa and South America some 220 million years ago, passing through its current growth of six inches a year and ending with how it will cease to exist some 180 million years from now.

    In between you learn about exploration, commerce, discovery, maritime biology, fishing, international law, weather, warfare, geology, boating construction, air travel, personal accomplishments and basically anything that could possibly happen where this magnificent body of water can be a part of. Historically we learn so many things about this pond containing 25% of all the water in the planet. For example, I had no idea that the Atlantic Ocean was "discovered" in the XV Century. Not because nobody had ever seen it but because nobody until then had an idea of what kind of body of water it was.

    The structure of the book, though, is a little bit weird for my taste. The chapters are divided in parts 1-9 and it became difficult to follow it at times and there are so many topics that you may feel a little bit lost every now and then. Also, there fact there are so many topics inevitably makes some of them boring, but it assures that every reader will find something for them when they decide to take on this incredible research accomplishment.

    Regardless, this is as good Winchester writing, as good Winchester writing gets. If you are a fan you will read it an enjoy it. If you are not a fan, you will still come out of this as a more knowledgeable person than when you started. That alone makes it totally worthy read.

    You can check more at my blog, LectumErgoSum dot com.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2013

    This may be unfair

    This is probably an interesting, perhaps fascinating, book. It is probably unfair that I write that it depresses me when I'm told twice within the first several pages that humanity is doomed and will become extinct. I don't want to read it. I'd like to think humanity will figure a way out. So, sorry, I was looking for history of the Atlantic Ocean, not this author's gloom and doom.

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  • Posted August 4, 2012

    Having really liked the three Simon Winchester books I'd read pr

    Having really liked the three Simon Winchester books I'd read previously, I looked forward to Atlantic. I'd have to rate Atlantic as an ambitious near miss however. If you want a better read try Krakatoa or The Man Who Loved China.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2011

    Lacking direction

    The title of this book is intriguing, but the book lacks a relevant timeline, scope, and proper direction. Instead, the author weaves in and out of history in no particular order. Also, after many pages explaining a little know historical footnote, the author attempts to quickly explain its relevance to the topic in one quick sentence, but often fails.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 11, 2011

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    Posted August 2, 2011

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    Posted January 3, 2011

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    Posted March 18, 2011

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    Posted January 16, 2011

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    Posted November 28, 2010

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    Posted March 31, 2011

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    Posted November 3, 2010

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