Saturday, October 22, 2011


Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 2010
Hardcover, 512 pages
ISBN-13: 9780061702587
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. Simon Winchester makes the Atlantic come vividly alive. Spanning the ocean's story from its geological origins to the age of exploration-covering the Vikings, the Irish, the Basques, John Cabot, and Christopher Columbus in the north, and the Portuguese and the Spanish in the south-and from World War II battles to today's struggles with pollution and overfishing, his narrative is epic, intimate, and awe inspiring. More than a mere history, this is an unforgettable journey of unprecedented scope by one of the most gifted writers in the English language.
My Thoughts:
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is Simon Winchester's biography of the Atlantic Ocean. Winchester decided that, since the ocean is a living thing, the story of the Atlantic could be told in the format of a biography. In an extension of this comparison, Winchester decided to structure the chapters in the book based on the seven stages of man as outlined in Shakespeare's As You Like It:
"Infant; School-boy; Lover; Soldier; Justice; Slipper'd Pantaloon; and Second Childishness. It seemed all of a sudden, just about the ideal. Pinioned within these seven categories, the stages of our relationship with the ocean could be made quite manageable.
"I could examine in the First Age, for example, the stirrings of humankind's initial childlike interest in the sea. In the second, I could examine how that initial curiosity evolved into the scholarly disciplines, of exploration, education, and learning - and in this as in all the other Ages I could explore the history of that learning, so that each Age would become a chronology in and of itself. I could then become captive in the Third Age - that of the lover - by the story of humankind's love affairs, by way of the art, poetry, architecture, or prose that this sea has inspired over the centuries.
"In the Fourth Age - that of the soldier - I could tell of the arguments and conflicts that have so often roiled the ocean....In the Fifth - that of the well-fed Justice - I could describe how the sea became a sea of laws and commerce....In the sixth Age, that dominated by the fatigue and tedium of the pantaloon, I could reflect upon the ways man has recently wearied of the great sea, has come to take it for granted....And in the Seventh and final Age....I could imagine the ways by which this much-overlooked and perhaps vengeful ocean might one day strike back, reverting to type, reverting to the primal nature of what it always was. (pg. 26-27)"
As a fan of Winchester's books, I was really looking forward to reading Atlantic, and, as much as I enjoyed it, I must add a few precautions for those considering reading this massive narrative. First, it helps if you have read other books by Winchester and appreciate his writing. Since he's a talented writer who has a good eye for interesting details and can share many entertaining anecdotes, many people will find this part easy. Second, this is not an easy-to-read-light-hearted-entertainment. While it is entertaining and Winchester can be humorous, it's also dense, expansive and detailed -  it's not a quick read. You need to know you will be investing some time in reading. Third, it will help if potential readers have an appreciation for a wide range of topics from ancient history to geology to art to military history, to exploration.

Atlantic includes: A Table Of Contents, List of Maps and Illustrations, Preface, Prologue, Seven Chapters, an Epilogue, Acknowledgments, A Glossary of Possibly Unfamiliar Terms, Bibliography, and Index. 
Very Highly Recommended
The ocean romance that lies at the heart of this book was primed for me by an unanticipated but unforgettable small incident. opening
There was something uncanny about the sudden silence, the emptiness, the realization of the enormous depths below us and the limitless heights above, the universal grayness of the scene, the very evident and potentially terrifying power of the rough seas and the wind, and the fact that despite our puny human powerlessness and insignificance, invisible radio beams and Morse code signals had summoned readily offered help from somewhere far away. pg. 11
Wasn't the ocean just distance for most people these days? Didn't we all take for granted a body of water that, so relatively recently - no more than five hundred years before, at most - was viewed by mariners who had not yet dared attempt to cross it with a mixture of awe, terror, and amazement? pg. 19
It is both possible and reasonable, then, to tell the Atlantic Ocean's story as a biography. It is a living thing; it has a geographical story of birth and expansion and evolution to its present middleaged shape and size; and then it has a well-predicted end story of contraction, decay, and death. pg. 22
He had arranged his chosen poems in seven discrete sections, to illustrate each of the seven stages of a man's life that are listed so famously in the "All the world's a stage..." speech in As You Like It. And I was reading Owen's book one day when I realized that this very same structure also happened to offer me just what I needed for this human aspect of the Atlantic story: a proper framework for the book I planned to write, a stage setting that would transmute all themes of ocean life into players, progressing from infancy to senescence, so that all could be permitted to play their parts in turn. pg. 25

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