Simon Winchester's "Atlantic," reviewed by Ken Ringle

Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:53 PM


Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

By Simon Winchester

Harper. 495 pp. $27.99

Simon Winchester is one of those maddeningly gifted British writers who could probably write the history of mud and make it fascinating. In fact, he sort of did. His 2003 bestseller, "Krakatoa," started with the Big Bang theory of the universe, embraced tectonic plates and volcanology and somehow made the history of the physical Earth as compelling as a detective story. "The Professor and the Madman" (1998) did the same with the Oxford English Dictionary. Now comes "Atlantic" which he describes as a "biography" of the ocean. Has he finally overreached himself? Perhaps. But what a rollicking ride he gives us anyway.

On one hand this is a grab bag of sea yarns, as the subtitle suggests, and no one tells a better yarn than Winchester. But the author has a larger scheme in mind. "One might say that if the Mediterranean had long been the inland sea of the classical civilization, then the Atlantic Ocean had in time replaced it by becoming the inland sea of Western Civilization" - the wellspring of the "Atlantic Community" that has dominated most of the past 400 years. Though the most mobile members of that community may cross the Atlantic by jet these days with hardly a thought for the ocean below them, hasn't the ocean itself, he asks - with its seismic geology, dynamic meteorology and myriad forces, resources and distances - shaped our past and future in ways more powerful than we recognize?

It's a teasing thought - and all that Winchester needs to usher us aboard a page-turning 495-page voyage of discovery ranging almost from the primeval ooze of millennia long past to the environmental concerns of the early 21st century. But the winds propelling us on that voyage are often Winchester's own breezy adventures. Whether he's sailing to the storm-whipped Faroe Islands, where nervous sheep live their entire lives on the slender grassy ledges of near-vertical rock faces, a mere hoof-step from oblivion, or he's being tossed into a Patagonian prison while attempting to cover the Falklands War as a journalist, the author is often his own best evidence for what's compelling about what we might call Atlanticality. Steam ship travel? Winchester made one of the last regularly scheduled trips on a trans-Atlantic liner. Offshore oil? He worked for a term on a wave-pounded rig in the North Sea. Continental drift? This geologist-turned-journalist continues to have rocks in his head, but communicates their fascination to him almost casually with asides that John McPhee might find instructive.

What's best about Winchester's writing is his mischievous eye for the irresistible detail. Nobody thought of the Atlantic as a separate ocean, he tells us, until the writings of Amerigo Vespucci, "the colorful Italian explorer and sorcerer (and in later life . . . pimp)" whose book was "wildly popular - helped no doubt by Vespucci's loving discussions of the cosmetic self-mutilation, anal cleanliness and sexual practices of the people he met along the way."

Prince Albert I of Monaco was so taken with oceanography that he endowed the International Hydrographic Organization, in the shadow of Monte Carlo's casinos, which fixes the boundaries of the Atlantic, one of which is Anticosti Island in the St. Lawrence estuary. Which, Winchester informs us in another unforgettable footnote, "was once owned by a French chocolatier, was nearly bought by Hitler, and now is home to a tiny community of lighthouse keepers."

This sort of thing is so addictive that one soldiers on through tales a good bit taller. He suggests, for example, that the world owes parliamentary government to Iceland and massive intercontinental trade to the Hanseatic League and massive long-distance fishing to the Atlantic cod banks and Atlantic whaling, and so on. Many of his arguments tying the Atlantic to our very being are unarguable, like the rise of global communication following the advent of Atlantic telegraph cable and Marconi's ship-to-ship wireless traffic. But at times watching him synthesizing all this is a bit like watching a tightrope walker at work: One is enthralled more by the daring than convinced by the argument.

Still, it's all great fun. One wishes, however, that Winchester had given at least a nod to a previous "Atlantic," a splendidly written, too-little-noticed 2002 book by Scott Cookman which covers a surprising amount of the same territory while describing the last great transoceanic yacht race - the way-over-the-top 1905 Kaiser's Cup - as a kind of maritime precursor to World War I.

But this "Atlantic" is enough. How could it not be with a writer who describes his subject as "a sinuous snakelike river of an ocean, stretching . . . from the Stygian fogs of the north to the Roaring Forties in the south, riven with deeps in its western chasms, dangerous with shallows in eastern plains, a place of cod and flying fish . . . of gyres of Sargasso weed and . . . unborn hurricanes, a place of icebergs and . . . currents hot, cold, torrential, and languorous . . . of underwater volcanoes and earthquakes, of stromatolites and cyanobacteria and . . . giant squid and jellyfish and their slow-and-steady southern majesties, the great and glorious wandering albatrosses"?

Ken Ringle is a former Post reporter and a sailor.

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