Enthralling historical mastery

2011-05-11 00:00

ONCE in a very long while there appears a book so ambitiously conceived, so meticulously planned and put together, so beautifully written, that all the reviewer really wants to do after reading, re-reading and marvelling all the way is to say: “Wonderful. Read it.”

Simon Winchester, master of narrative non-fiction (The Man Who Loved China; Krakatoa; The Professor and the Madman), here sets down the life story of the Atlantic Ocean, from its birth in the farthest recesses of geological time to its eventual extinction millions of years in the future.

In part, his fascination with this great body of water derives from his own frequent travels across it over 50 years, to which, now, he adds special excursions to its geologically informative perimeter, and to those places that are the source of some of its most fascinating stories — the age of exploration, the colonisation of the Americas, the rise and fall of the slave trade, the flourishing of transatlantic commerce.

There are extraordinary tales of emigration by sea and of the great naval battles over many centuries that have left such an imprint on Atlantic history.

So enormous a subject would be intractable were it not given a framework permitting division into sections in a logical order, and Winchester has, rather fittingly, chosen his subheadings from the Ages of a Man’s Life in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. First is the infant; second, the “whining schoolboy”; third, the lover (“sighing like furnace”); fourth, the soldier (“jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel”); fifth, the justice (judge), well-fed, “full of wise saws and modern instances”; sixth, the elderly “lean and slippered pantaloon”; and seventh, the second childhood of old age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”.

Thus, we learn first, very readably despite essential technicalities, of the geological origins of the ocean, this followed by a study of these waters as they’ve been known and increasingly used during human history. Then, in a chapter titled “Oh! The Beauty and the Might of it”, Winchester explores the Atlantic as it has appeared and appealed to, and inspired, human beings, in literature, for example, and in art, music, architecture and other forms of expression.

There follows an often harrowing section on maritime warfare, from the earliest times to the 20th century, and on the horrors of the slave trade, after which is one on commerce and one on the change (and decay) wrought by air travel. Whereupon Winchester muses upon the future, upon the likely effects of exploitation, pollution, degradation and climate change and, in an elegiac final essay or epilogue, on the ultimate transformation of the ocean millions of years hence.

The book is enthralling — an exhilarating and very accessible mixture of history, science and reportage from the ultimate writer of narrative non-fiction in celebration of a magnificent body of water. And, should the reader wish to know more, there is an extensive bibliography, as well as a glossary of terms used in the text, and a comprehensive index.

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