Atlantic: The Biography of an Ocean - Simon Winchester

I picked up The Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories under the mistaken belief that it was a history book about the Atlantic World.  When I mentioned to my mother, an early American historian, that I was reading a book blurbed as "the breathtaking saga of the magnificent Atlantic Ocean," she was intrigued.  "The Atlantic world is such an interesting topic," she said.  "It ties together the themes of so many countries as well as the origins of U.S. history."

 

Unfortunately, I had misunderstood the theme of the book.  It may very well be enjoyable and entertaining, but it definitely isn't a book about the history of the Atlantic world.  Winchester divides his book into sections based upon Shakespeare's seven stages of man ("All the world's a stage" and all that.)  This thematic fuzziness leads to an extremely rambling, non-chronological narrative in which Winchester jumps from time period to time period to serve up various facts and anecdotes about the ocean.  The narrative meandered back and forth between centuries from paragraph to paragraph, something I found utterly confusing.

 

Part of the reason for the lack of chronological cohesion is that the book is not, at its heart, a history book. To give him credit, Winchester is very direct about the purpose of the book, which is not, as I had thought, to give the reader a view of a different time.  Instead, I'd suggest thinking of Atlantic as "An Inconvenient Truth-Lite."  After a few initial background sections, much of the narrative focuses on the ways that current practices destroy the oceans, the damage of global warming, etc, etc.  At least Winchester is open about his goal; as he says at one point (emph mine),

"I recognize all too well that it would nicely serve this book's purpose to be able to show that man is fully or even wholly responsible for the ocean's ills, and I clearly would like to be able to do so."

Winchester presents quite a lot of geological and weather-related information, but unfortunately, I find these facts to be too impersonal to be interesting. A large portion of the narrative is taken up by Winchester bemoaning the way that more efficient forms of travel have reduced our awe of the ocean, and his attempts to anecdotally "prove" that this loss of fear is directly tied to the growing issues with pollution:

"Now that we have conquered it..in lockstep...there has been a steady lessening, some would say an actual abandonment, of humankind's duty of care towards it."

Because obviously all those whaling ships that hunted whales to near-extinction were either not sufficiently afraid of the waves or not doing any damage, right? To be fair, much of the book does indeed involve historical anecdotes, but they tend to be wrapped in polemics that "serve this book's purpose". Quite a bit of the book is also taken up by Winchester's anecdotes about his own life and his musings on the waves.  Personally, I couldn't care less about his voyages or his personal commentary on they mystery of the Atlantic; I wanted facts.  More than that--I wanted history.

 

For me, the best parts of the book were the portions that actually did delve into history, however superficially. Winchester attempts to serve out new and obscure facts; unfortunately, he is a little behind the times.  For example, a section is devoted to the "shocking" reveal of Leif Ericson as the true first discoverer of the Americas (because native peoples never count as discoverers).  Winchester declares that the U.S. still remain loyal to Columbus, and that we celebrate him as a hero and do not teach about Ericson in schools.  In most public schools I've attended--and that's across 4 states at least a decade ago--we were definitely taught about Ericson and Vespucci, and Columbus Day was basically devoted to an "Oh crap imperialism is kind of terrible, right?"-style conversation.

 

At the same time, I found Winchester's writing style and dry humour quite entertaining.  Some of my favourite moments were his (typically English) stereotypes about various countries; for example:

"To Europeans, (the generalization may be as unfair as most, yet has enough truth to it to stand) to win knowledge of the Atlantic was to gain knowledge of the planet ; to those on its far side in the nineteenth century [that is, the Americans], to know the Atlantic was to be the better equipped to make money."

I also learned a few fascinating tidbits; for example, in the late eighteenth century, a man named James Riley was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa and enslaved.  When he finally escaped, he became a firm abolitionist (but also part of the box-and-ship-em Colonization Movement)  wrote a book, Sufferings in Africa, that was incredibly influential. In fact, Lincoln claimed that it influenced him more than any other book other than the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. To me, there was something both disturbing and fascinating about this; given that there were many tracts about the evils of slavery in America available at the time, it seemed to me to imply that for slavery to feel "real" to the slave owners, it needed to be put in the context of an enslaved white person.

 

There were plenty of other excellent little stories, like the connection between WWI, acetone, conkers (horse chestnuts), and the creation of Israel, and despite my disappointment in the contents, I did enjoy Winchester's dry wit. Overall, I think that Atlantic could be a good read--as long as you know what you're getting.  Just make sure that unlike me, you don't go in expecting the story of the Atlantic world.