Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester

Wouldn't it be great to be Simon Winchester and travel around the world seeking the original locations of famous stories? Wouldn't you enjoy finding evidence of a shipwreck along the Skeleton Coast of Namibia or hiking around the rocks of Gibraltar to see the cliffs of Morocco across the strait? Just getting there would be an adventure. Winchester also seems to read all the classics of literature and visits great libraries to research the Viking settlements of Newfoundland, Portuguese and Spanish explorers, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, plate tectonics, the fishing of the Grand Banks, British Navy battles, and life on the great ocean liners. He regularly assembles all his experiences, research, and thoughts into books, such as Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories.

I spent about two weeks listening to Winchester read his book Atlantic. He began by telling how in 1963 as a teenager he had become fascinated with the ocean when he took his first cruise from England to America on liner The Empress of Britain. As he tells it, he was already a student of history and knew of the ships and explorers who had already travelled his route. He was particularly interested in how emergency medicine was delivered by airplane to the ship mid-ocean. Later in the book he recounts a flight of his own across the northern portion of the ocean, remembering the pioneering flights of the early twentieth century. He seemed constantly aware of his location and the closest airports, should the jet engines fail.

In Atlantic, Winchester shows how we take the ocean for granted now, forgetting what a large role it has played in the development of our civilization. It was a source of wealth, not just a barrier that separated us from other continents. He shows how little we know about the oceans, pointing out that aquatic micro-organisms only discovered in the 1980s produce oxygen that make our lives possible. He warns that when we foul the waters we risk our own lives. Like Tim Flannery in Here on Earth, he warns that the oceans are being over-fished and will be rising as polar ice melts.

Like author Bill Bryson, Winchester is a free-flowing font of wide-ranging information and stories. Both can weld scientific descriptions to human adventures effortlessly. Both can entertain while pointing out the folly of humankind. Winchester is a bit more serious. Curiously, Bryson is an American who now lives in Great Britain, while Winchester has left his homeland to live in Manhattan.

In Atlantic, Winchester presents a biography of the ocean in seven sections corresponding to the ages of man to which Shakespeare refers in his "all the world is a stage" speech. Many readers might call his book a natural history. How ever you classify it, Atlantic is worth a few weeks of reading.

Winchester, Simon. Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories. HarperCollins, 2010. 495p. ISBN 9780061702587.

Also, HarperAudio, 2010. 13 discs. ISBN 9780061866128.

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