The prolific journalist and historian returns with a story both geographically immense and profoundly personal.
Winchester (The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, 2008, etc.) offers a tale about the Atlantic Ocean that is variably genial, cautionary, lyrical, admonitory, terrifying, horrifying and inspiring. He begins with a memory from 1963—his youthful transatlantic crossing aboard the passenger liner Empress of Britain—and returns to the birth of the Atlantic, perhaps 540 million years ago, providing a John McPhee–like history of its formation and development. Winchester then looks at humans’ “infant” acquaintance with the ocean, noting that people first settled its shores about 164,000 years ago on the western coast of Africa. They soon ventured out on the ocean, then endeavored to cross it—the Irish could have done it, he says, but there’s no hard evidence. The author chronicles the stories of Leif Eriksson, John Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci, and notes that the “schoolboy” phase of the Atlantic’s life includes our attempts to understand it—to chart it, measure it, discover its mineral, vegetable and animal bounties and puzzle over its mysteries. For the “lover” phase of the Atlantic’s history, Winchester sails across centuries of literature, art and music that in some sense celebrate the ocean. The “soldier” phase involves warfare on and around the Atlantic, from the Vikings to the Falklands. The “justice” section examines maritime laws of various sorts, from fishing to trade to communication. The concluding chapters deal with the depletion and pollution of the ocean, and the author projects a tone of both dire warning and feathered hope. Throughout, Winchester sprinkles passages of personal history, none more powerful than the epilogue about Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, “a place so named because of all the skeletons, of both men and the vessels in which they had wrecked.”
A lifetime of thought, travel, reading, imagination and memory inform this affecting account.