Atlantic by Simon Winchester
Harper Press $39.99
Reviewers are, I suppose, expected to be dispassionate but I admit to being an enthusiastic fan of Simon Winchester. I have never read a book of his that was not thoroughly rewarding and this latest, from a prolific production line, is one of the best.
In choosing to tell the story of an ocean - and the Atlantic is arguably the most important in human affairs - he gives himself the opportunity to range across the widest possible fields, and the broadest scope to display the erudition which rarely comes at the cost of his narrative skills.
Taking Shakespeare's seven ages of man as the framework of his subject, he begins, as the geologist he is by training might be expected to do, with explaining the almost inconceivably ancient processes by which the ocean was formed and by which it will eventually disappear. But if the time spans here tend to make the non- geologist's mind reel, Winchester is quick to move on to a more human scale as he traces the peoples who were drawn to live around both the eastern and western fringes of the great water, and who were eventually tempted to voyage across its deadly expanses.
The history of the early navigators from the Phoenicians, the Irish, the Vikings and Columbus, still mired in some fiery controversies, makes lively reading and his later passages on naval history from the longships to nuclear submarines are equally engrossing. Here we have the Titanic and Lusitania, Trafalgar and the Battle of the Atlantic, all familiar stories but retold with verve and in a new and wider context.
But, as he points out, the Atlantic became a vital thoroughfare for civilians and he is illuminating on the slave trade and the huge migration movements which changed the face of human history. Cities were born, lived and died on the Atlantic trade. But if Winchester is good on the big picture he never neglects the little stories in each section and typically the book ends with a forgotten story of heroism at sea and a tribute to two men, a Scot and a Namibian, who died in a failed rescue attempt.
The romance of the ocean was the spark that set this book in train and Winchester covers the work of painters, writers and musicians who have been influenced by it, from the work of the Dutch, like the van de Veldes, to the remarkable drawings of the Latvian-American Vija Celmins.
But it is not just the human history that Winchester relates. The marine life features largely, both in its own right and in tragic collision with greedy and short-sighted humanity. The collapse of the Atlantic cod fisheries is a well reported calamity which Winchester examines in relation to the question of sustainable fishing in general.
And, of course, he turns to the great issue of climate change which he discusses in a notably detached and unemotional manner, although his passion is clear enough on the despoliation of nature which man has inflicted on the world's seas.
Winchester was a journalist and this book is as up-to-date as the news headlines with the disruption to air traffic of the Iceland volcano and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill both receiving treatment.
This vast panorama, and this review has omitted several themes, is handled with drive and wit, particularly in the footnotes, which are a treat in themselves. If there is a regret it is that the book is not longer. After all, Fernand Braudel managed three volumes, some 1520 pages in my edition on the Mediterranean and he only went up to 1598. Perhaps Winchester might be persuaded to have another go on this scale.
John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.