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The Atlantic Ocean – Mystery and a Million Stories

April 16, 2011

What does it take to write a book on a subject as big as the Atlantic Ocean? Do you just sit in your study, do a bit of web surfing, talk to a few people on the phone, maybe meet a few, and then churn out four hundred and fifty nine pages of prose with a few photos thrown in?

Maybe. But I suspect that the end product might not have much of an author’s heart in it. Reading Simon Winchester’s book Atlantic – A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories reminded me that to write on a subject so substantial requires more than a little effort.

Winchester took eighteen months to write and research Atlantic, and another four to edit it. In the process, he went to Morocco, Brazil, Argentina, Newfoundland, Monte Carlo, Namibia, Norway, St Helena, Greenland, Tristan Da Cunha, Bermuda and a number of other islands. He acknowledges assistance from over fifty people, and quotes over two hundred reference sources – books and academic papers. And from all that effort, we get a book that retails on Amazon for ten US dollars.

Reading the book over a few weeks felt similar to what I imagine might be the experience of crossing the ocean by sail for the first time. The anticipation of the journey, slow periods of contemplation, encounters with the unexpected, passages of frenetic activity, ending with a race towards harbour with a brisk following wind.

Atlantic is about man’s relationship with the ocean from ancient times to the present day. Winchester talks about early hominids who first lived by the sea 150,000 years ago, and about the Phoenician traders who ventured timidly beyond the Rock of Gibraltar in search of the murex snails that yielded the purple dye much prized by the Mediterranean elite. About the Vikings who made the first crossings to Newfoundland, and about the explorers of Spain and Portugal who discovered the “New World” and realised that the Atlantic was not a sea that circled the earth, but a vast ocean with definable limits.

He writes about the rules of the sea and those who broke them – privateers and pirates. About the ocean as a barrier to commerce, slowly overcome by sail, steam and finally vast container ships ploughing through the waters as airliners criss-cross the sky above. About communications between old world and new, and about the ocean of a place of war.

He discusses its spoiling by human hands that dump radioactive materials in its trenches, and allow noxious chemicals to flow into it from the rivers. Hands that have scraped the fish from its floor until they are nearly extinct, and reduced the whale population to an endangered remnant.

He talks about ice melt, rising sea levels and their effect on our coastlines and cities, about the anatomy of hurricanes and the uncertainty of outcomes from global warming.

And finally he describes the Atlantic’s destiny – to be obliterated in a coming together of the continents in 150 million years’ time. A moment when the Isla Los Estados lighthouse at the tip of South America collides with the Raffles Lighthouse in Singapore – should a single brick of those structures survive the long passage of time.

Occasionally Atlantic throws up human and biological stories that surprise and amaze.

About Chaim Weizmann, whose discovery of a more efficient way of manufacturing acetone, a key ingredient of cordite. His contribution to the British naval effort in World War One gave Weizmann, an ardent Zionist, an influential place in the discussions that produced the Balfour Declaration – a political settlement that eventually led to the creation of the State of Israel.

And the story of the humble Prochlorococcus, a tiny bacterium a few microns across that was discovered in 1986. It turns out to be the most abundant living creature on earth, and is believed to produce one fifth of the world’s atmospheric oxygen.

There are people who like their books to have a dominant structure and a linear narrative. Atlantic is perhaps not for them. It does have a structure, but not so rigid that it prevents Winchester from sailing off into passages of anecdote and sometimes meditation.

As a child I used to swim in the Atlantic waves off Cornwall, and sail in the bays of North Wales. For many years we used to holiday at Poldhu Cove, the Cornish headland where Guglielmo Marconi sent radio signals across the ocean for the first time. I used to stand on the wind-swept headland and look out to sea, imagining America thousands of miles away. Since then, I have encountered the Atlantic in many of its forms – from the coasts of Europe, Africa and America.

I was hoping that Simon Winchester’s book would deepen my appreciation of that magnificent ocean, and he did not disappoint.

From → Books, History, Media, Social, UK, USA

  1. Thanks Steve,
    that sounds like a remarkable book. I lived on the Atlantic side of Canada – in Halifax Nova Scotia – and found it a mysterious cold stretch of water, with many moods. And of course, the Nova Scotians being a seafaring lot there are many books in, on and around the subject. Your critique certainly gives the sweep of it. Thank you.


    • Then I think you’d enjoy it, Rohini. There’s quite a lot about the depletion of the Grand Banks cod stocks, and the idiocy of Canadian government policy that was partly responsible. I think it’s still on sale in Jashanmal, by the way.

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