Colourful history of the Atlantic ocean

Atlantic: A vast ocean of a million stories Simon Winchester Harper Collins 2011, pp 498 399

This was a process that over 40 million years created a 5,000 mile gap between America and the old worlds of Europe and Africa, a gap big enough to fit the Atlantic Ocean in.
In his youth, Winchester, then a geologist at the beginning of his career, came under the influence of the adventurer and travel writer Jan Morris, and turned to writing instead.

Morris and Winchester even went on to collaborate on a book — Stones of Empire: Buildings of the Raj. Winchester’s many other achievements include being jailed in Argentina on suspicion of being a British spy and doing a decade as an editor with Condé Nast Traveller. He has travelled widely indeed — and written about almost every step.

Among his approximately 20 books, one compiles his writings on Kolkata (where he served a short stint as a foreign correspondent for The Guardian). Then, there is The Sun Never Sets, a mournful study of the last remaining outposts of the British empire; he’s also written the fabulously whacky near-classic, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

In his new book, Winchester tries to paint the Atlantic Ocean’s colourful history in great detail, thereby offering the reader an encyclopaedic view: from the earliest journeys of exploration and discovery by the Vikings and by Columbus; art and literature inspired by the Atlantic; its economic history including pretty much everything from the American slave trade, the laying of intercontinental telephone cables to modern-day fishing; as well as the present environmental concerns such as oil spillage and global warming.

However, now and then Winchester gets too pedantic and adopts a preachy tone, drowning the reader in a clutter of confusing facts and monotonous scholarly ramblings about geological data on a level that can possibly excite only a scientist. At other times, he tries to dramatise historical happenings, such as in the passage, where he portrays the astonishment of the first prehistoric African to set eyes on the Atlantic and dip a finger in saltwater: “Quite probably, he was profoundly shaken, terrified by the sight of something so huge and utterly unlike anything he had known before.

Yet, he didn’t run yelping back to the safety of the savannah... Then, while keeping himself well away from the thunder of the breakers, he knelt first to investigate just as a child might do today, the magical mysteries of the seashore tide pools… He dipped his finger into the water, withdrew it, tasted — it was very different from all he had known before... ”Unfortunately, these laboured story-telling segments with their faux-poetic tone depend on a loose foundation of conjecture and hypothesis, and don’t mix well with the narrative non-fiction that is Winchester’s real forte.

The tedious muddle is lightened up by the more personal anecdotes about visiting the Faroe Islands or meeting the pundits running the International Hydrographic Office in Monaco. Reading this book, one is constantly reminded of Winchester’s better works, such as The Professor and the Madman — a book that I felt a sudden urge to take down from the shelf and found myself re-reading when I got tired, and felt my attention plummet about halfway across the Atlantic.

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