Book Review: Atlantic

Atlantic:  Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, And A Vast Ocean Of A Million Stories, by Simon Winchester

In general, this was an enjoyable book to read.  One can get a sense for an author’s preoccupations when one reads a book like this one, since the large scope of the book leads (almost inevitably) to a sprawling book that is full of multitudes, and that cannot possibly be covered exhaustively in one volume, but where the author’s own idiosyncratic interests come to the surface.  And so it is here, as the author mixes his own views of geology with a particularly pointed reading of history and that also includes a great deal of personal reflection on his own travels as well as some journalism about contemporary political issues like sustainability in fishing and climate change.  To be sure, not all of this was to my own particular taste.  Nevertheless, a book like this is important to take on its own merits, especially as it thoughtfully deals with Atlantic history and I have strong interests in that area [1].  On those grounds alone this book is a worthwhile read, apart from the general style that Winchester brings to any work of his.

Like many books, this sprawling tome of more than 450 pages is divided according to a piece of dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which the author views as being written about the Atlantic world, specifically that of Bermuda (an incident that finds its way here).  This allows the author to hang a loosely chronologically approach in a framework that provides the skeleton for the author’s wide-ranging musings and observations.  The author discusses the beginnings of the Atlantic in terms of geology as well as speculative prehistory about early man, spends a lot of time talking about the ways that various people sailed on the sea and eventually flew over it, viewing it merely as “the pond” and not seeing the glory and beauty of the Atlantic in the course of rapid travels.  The author waxes nostalgic about traveling over the Atlantic by sea and also comments on the economic blessings that came to areas based on their proximity to and exploitation of the sea.  There are discussions about voyages of discovery and the transfer of people across the Atlantic world in the aftermath of those discoveries.  The author also makes sure to comment on salient aspects of piracy, the slave trade, and imperialism that reflect some of his other writings.

What does one get out of a book like this?  For one, it is easy for someone to read a book like this and get a sense of the importance of the Atlantic even in an age where our oceans are little regarded aside from their littoral regions unless someone has an interest in logistics or ecology.  For another, even though the author is certainly selective and deeply personal in his choice of what to write about the Atlantic, there are still ways that the ocean and its context can be appreciated whether you love travel, history, culture, fashion, or any other number of subjects.  After a while, the wise reader will somewhat tune out the author’s own particular scientific and political worldviews and reflect upon the complex ways that we are influenced by our geographical context and that we probably should reflect a bit more on the oceans we happen to be around and to act and think fondly towards them as stewards of the earth.  If this book is not a definitive volume on the Atlantic, it certainly is a worthwhile and generally enjoyable effort.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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