Reviewed by Anne Saker
Among the extraordinary jewels of information that Simon Winchester displays in his latest masterwork is an electronic map of the world with the flight paths of all air traffic. Seeing how we have belted the Atlantic Ocean, as Winchester's haunting and cautionary words dance around, the reader can draw only one conclusion: The Lilliputians have tied down the giant.
The British-born Winchester, now living in Massachusetts, is a skillful and artistic chronicler of human comprehension of large things and large tasks. His "also by" list describes where this passion has taken him, and then his readers; among the titles are Krakatoa, The Professor and the Madman and, lest anyone fail to get the point, The Meaning of Everything.
In Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories, Winchester ponders the ocean in the broadest possible sense but in such a delightful and engaging way that I felt as if I was sitting with him on Wrightsville Beach, N.C., under an umbrella watching the breakers. Here he describes the first 16th-century maps that truly defined that mighty deep:
With a new continent in place, so the sea that lay between it and the Old World continents of Europe and Africa -- the sea that had variously been named the Ocean Sea, the Ethiopean Ocean, Oceanus Occidentalis, the Great West Sea, the Western Ocean, Mare Glaciale, and by Herodotus in The Histories in the fifth century B.C. the Atlantic, -- became, at last and with certainty, a discrete and bordered ocean.
Winchester's gift does not rest with story selection. He has figured out a major puzzle of the writing game: organization. For Atlantic, as he explains in the preface, he took a page from Shakespeare, specifically from As You Like It.
The "All the world's a stage" soliloquy outlines the life span of man, and Winchester borrows it to bestow seven ages on the Atlantic, the first starting 200 or so million years ago when the Earth's great tearing apart rent Pangaea asunder, and water filled the space.
He extends the conceit so deftly that it never seems forced. Chapter One, for example, is subtitled, "At first, the infant/mewling and puking in the nurse's arms," and describes the first Phoenician ships braving an exit of the Mediterranean into the gray waters.
Chapter Two -- "Then the whining schoolboy/with his satchel/And shining morning face ...." -- describes how the Atlantic has been measured and mapped over the centuries. Its beginnings, for example, can be plotted as far away as the east side of Triple Divide Peak in Montana, where snowpack runoff flows to a river named Atlantic Creek.
There are, as Winchester's subtitle promises, many exciting sea battles and rescues, and many courageous and risk-loving men who could not stay away from that ocean. The tale of a little-known sailor lost in the sea during a 1942 rescue is especially haunting and perfectly explains Winchester's dedication of the book to the sailor's memory.
But with such obvious love comes great sorrow, too. Winchester's final two "ages" of the Atlantic Ocean provide a sickening description of how humanity has turned the great sea, from Greenland to the South Georgia Islands, into a fetid sewer, overfished, besmirched, abused. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, Winchester points out, serves as only the most recent and despicable example of human greed pounding on these vital waters.
Winchester entertains at length the possibility that with Katrina-style storms of the past decade and other weather catastrophes, the Atlantic might be trying to fight back, to remind puny humans that long after their kind have vanished from the Earth, the ocean will remain, gray and mighty.
With Winchester's beautiful narrative in mind, I'd be inclined to root for the Atlantic.<
Books mentioned in this post