Simon Winchester's Atlantic

I've enjoyed Simon Winchester's profiles of eccentric individuals in the books The Man Who Loved China and The Map That Changed the World so I was looking forward to his recent book Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. Atlantic is a "biography" of the Atlantic Ocean, and while it was sprawling and perhaps a little overwrought, there were enough pleasurable and informational moments that I'm glad I stuck with it.

Winchester structures the book to parallel Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man speech from All The World's a Stage, with each chapter focusing on an aspect of the Atlantic Ocean's place in history, nature, commerce, art, etc. Inevitably, certain chapters work better than others, but I found myself unable to put the book down in the chapters that talk about the motivations for initially exploring the Atlantic, and the warfare, fishing and shipping that developed as the ocean was conquered. As just one example, I found the attempt to span the ocean with the initial telegraph cables to be fascinating, a mind-boggling feat.

Certainly some chapters don't work as well as the parts that I enjoyed. The section on art and architecture influenced by the ocean was perhaps the least interesting to me and near the end, when Winchester outlines the pollution, global warming and overfishing challenges facing the Atlantic, I found myself drifting. There have been other books dedicated to those subjects that may work better for the interested reader. Despite his clear love for and connection with the Atlantic Ocean, and the fact that it was truly the last "conquered" ocean, I did find some of his arguments to be overstated regarding the uniqueness of that body of water compared to other bodies of water.

Perhaps Winchester felt crushed by the size of this work as well, since his latest book, The Alice Behind Wonderland, barely goes over 100 pages. However, you've got to admire the man's passion for his subject and much of the history (political, physical and cultural) contained in Atlantic is captivating.

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