three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
user_rating: 
0

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

A-AtlanticSimon Winchester is the author of many works of nonfiction, including The Professor and the Madman (1998) and Krakatoa ( 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003). In 2006, he was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire for "services to journalism and literature." Also reviewed: A Crack in the Edge of the World ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006) and The Man Who Loved China ( 4 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2008)

The Topic: The Atlantic is probably the least appreciated of the world's major oceans, perhaps because we have so many opportunities to forget about it. Americans and Europeans cross it so frequently that one of its nicknames is "the Pond," although it spans 33 million square miles. The items that arrive via its shipping lanes are so much a part of our everyday lives that it is difficult to romanticize their arrival. But Simon Winchester has developed a deep love of the Atlantic in his travels. In this book, he explores the ocean's history on every level--from the geographic to the personal and from exploration, naval battles, and piracy to the ocean's role in poetry and art--and makes the case for the Atlantic as the essential sea.
Harper. 512 pages. $27. ISBN: 9780061702587

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"The author blends both traditional and modern information, presenting a fine summary of such current ecological issues as global warming and pollution (with special mention of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring). ... Overall, Winchester has an uncanny ability to connect with readers, holding forth with the erudite charm of the fascinating dinner guest who is on everybody's invitation list." Edward J. Sheehy

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Winchester ponders the ocean in the broadest possible sense but in such a delightful and engaging way that I felt as if I was sitting with him on Wrightsville Beach, N.C., under an umbrella watching the breakers. ... Winchester entertains at length the possibility that with Katrina-style storms of the past decade and other weather catastrophes, the Atlantic might be trying to fight back, to remind puny humans that long after their kind have vanished from the Earth, the ocean will remain, gray and mighty." Anne Saker

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Winchester--a trained geologist and inveterate globetrotter--is well suited to tell the story. And he tells it with the sort of panache that he has brought to previous books, such as Krakatoa, about the volcanic disaster of 1883, and The Professor and the Madman, about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. ... His lively, lyrical telling of the ocean's story does much to sharpen our appreciation." John Steele Gordon

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Winchester's technique gives him license to pursue tangents hither and yon, which are annoying and charming in equal measure. ... Winchester's passion for his topic and prodigious research, which he salts with anecdotes about his own seaborne adventures, give his book a zestful, if peculiar, dynamism." Matthew Price

Entertainment Weekly 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A formidable writer and storyteller, Winchester still gets distracted by the occasional unworthy anecdote or superfluous specificity, but for all the densely packed information in this work, the one thing it never becomes, quite appropriately, is dry." Keith Staskiewicz

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The new book is riskier [than popular predecessors like The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa], 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. ... 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

Spectator (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For much of his book, Winchester pays entertaining homage to the traditional sagas of the sea: Vikings, pirates, explorers, naval victories and disasters, slave ships, Moby Dick, Atlantic civilisations, U-boat attacks during two world wars, pioneering flights above the ocean. ... For Winchester the Atlantic ocean is surely a living thing--furiously and demonstrably so." Joanna Kavenna

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Has he finally overreached himself? Perhaps. ... [A]t 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." Ken Ringle

Critical Summary

Reviews of Atlantic all seemed to begin with roughly the same assumptions. First, Simon Winchester is one of the best-loved nonfiction writers in the English-speaking world: his journalistic style has won over millions, and the minority that find it annoying already know why. Second, Winchester's project--a comprehensive history of the Atlantic--is simply impossible. Therefore, most reviews measured the book's success as a great writer's attempt at a worthy challenge. Critics all assessed that effort differently. Some found the book's structure unwieldy, for example, while others praised it as a brilliant solution to the challenge of containing an ocean's worth of stories. But in the end, the reviewers agreed that Winchester's voyage was well worth taking.