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.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.