Monday, 29 November 2010

Review: Atlantic, Simon Winchester (2010)

I freely admit to buying this book as comfort reading having heard - on the radio, I think - a brief bit of verbal applause for it that caught my attention recently. To be brief, the book is a well-written and well-researched general guide to the Atlantic Ocean.

Winchester's background as a peripatetic journalist and science wonk held him in good stead for the writing of this book, which attempts to cover as many aspects of the subject as is possible within the confines of a big, fat volume. The best part in my mind is possibly where he looks in detail at the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery during the 1980s and 1990s. Winchester suggests that the world has learned little from the experience.

His review of the world's literature that touches on the Atlantic, however, is less successful, being for a start restricted to English-language writing. Indeed, it's pretty cursory, omitting such classics as Tennyson's The Kraken, which to my mind was evidently inspired by late-19th-Century deep-sea exploration in the Atlantic. Winchester also completely fails to understand the nature of Romantic literature generally, and ascribes its authors' fascination with the sea to the long availability of source material about the Atlantic Ocean, rather than grasping how the nature of the ocean itself - wild, untamed and inhospitable - was congenial to Romantic sensibilities.

However to be fair it was Winchester's book that allowed me to make the Tennyson connection. Winchester spends a good deal of time describing how, for example, the first telegraphic cables were laid between Newfoundland and Ireland. There's also a fair amount of description dedicated to the 19th-Century exploration vessel HMS Challenger, which forshadowed the many scientific vessels that have been sent out in the intervening years to map the ocean floors, wildlife and currents.

But thank god for journalists. And generalists. Winchester's accessible writing gives up a swathe of information and those who value travel writing and single-issue non-fiction generally will get a lot out of this competent book. For those who appreciate the romance of travel, especially travel by sea, there are many capable passages here that will provide insights into the secrets of diverse sectors of the broad Atlantic and into the people who have, over the millennia, attempted to traverse its solemn wastes.

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