'Atlantic': Simon Winchester's labor of love and nostalgia for a mighty ocean
A review of Simon Winchester's "Atlantic," a spellbinding epic of the Alantic Ocean — its surface, depths, both shores and everything in between. Winchester discusses his book Nov. 17 at Town Hall Seattle.
Special to The Seattle Times
Author appearance: Simon Winchester
The author of "Atlantic" will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006, or at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
'Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Disasters, Titanic Storms and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories'
by Simon Winchester
Harper, 512 pp., $27.99
Oh to be Simon Winchester! What other writer lands — and nimbly dispatches — such plum assignments? In his latest volume, the globe-spinning best-seller bestrides the mighty Atlantic to summon forth a history of its surface, depths, both shores and everything in between.
In pursuit of the "million stories" of the subtitle, Winchester gets to cruise into Cape Town at dawn to watch the edge of Africa change "from blue to rock-dust brown." He strolls down Spain's Andalusian coast from the ancient fortress of Cadiz to the Rock of Gibraltar. He prowls Lower Manhattan for nautical charts and brass-bound chronometers. When he needs an eyeful of uninterrupted sea, Winchester doesn't sit on some jetty in New Jersey like the rest of us: no, he charters a boat to skim him out to Mykines, the westernmost of the storm-tossed Faroe Islands, "much favored by artists, who come for its wild solitude and its total subordination to the nature that so entirely surrounds it."
And then, flush with colorful quotes and amazing anecdotes and no doubt deep drifts of publisher's dollars, he heads for home to write about it all.
But Winchester deserves the glory and the adventure and the cash, because by God the man can tell a story.
In popular predecessors like "The Professor and the Madman" and "Krakatoa," Winchester chose subjects that lent themselves to coherent, if multistranded, narratives. The new book is riskier, from a narrative point of view, because there are literally scores of scenes and incidents and perhaps hundreds of characters all connected, however tenuously, to the Atlantic Ocean. The problem, Winchester confesses in the preface, was structure. The solution came to him on a trans-Atlantic (naturally) flight while he mused on the "Seven Ages of Man" speech from Shakespeare's "As You Like It." Why not make those ages "the stages of our relationship with the ocean"?
After a prologue covering the geologic forces that created this 33-million-square-mile body of water (and will one day unmake it), Winchester moves at a stately pace from mewling and puking infant (early endeavors to explore and then cross the Atlantic) through schoolboy (defining boundaries, plumbing depths, mapping currents), lover (art and literature), soldier (battles), round-bellied justice (trade and communication), scrawny old man (air traffic, container ships, industrial overfishing) and finally to the pathetic state of "second childishness" we've reduced the ocean to today through pollution, global warming, and unforgivable greed. It's a creaky conceit — less a structure than a container for all the gems that Winchester has dredged up. But no matter. Our author is usually so engaging, so erudite (his vocabulary alone is worth the cover price — gantries, quinquireme, discalced, carrack, loxodrome, godown, scutch), so shrewd in his deployment of detail, so blessed with good luck and goodwill that we forget the conceit and just enjoy the ride.
Though little is startling or new here, Winchester makes it all fresh with the gloss of his style and his knack for connections and juxtapositions (treating piracy and the slave trade as related criminal enterprises is inspired). Atlantic is clearly a labor of love and of nostalgia for the old days when "the smell of fish and Stockholm tar, the coils of rope, the flap of sails, the keening of gulls, and the thud of marine engines" made the great Atlantic ports places of wonder and excitement. I'm still not convinced that the Atlantic is "the central stage for all manner of humanity's most stupendous endeavors and amazements." But Winchester is so beguiling a companion that it seems churlish to argue.
David Laskin, born and raised near the Atlantic Ocean, is the Seattle-based author of "The Children's Blizzard" and "The Long Way Home."
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