Simon Winchester is one of those maddeningly gifted British writers who could probably write the history of mud and make it fascinating. In fact, he sort of did. His 2003 bestseller, Krakatoa, started with the big-bang theory of the universe, embraced tectonic plates and volcanology and somehow made the history of the physical Earth as compelling as a detective story. The Professor and the Madman (1998) did the same with the Oxford English Dictionary. Now comes Atlantic, which he describes as a "biography" of the ocean. Has he finally overreached himself? In places, perhaps. But what a rollicking ride he gives us anyway.
On one hand, this is a grab bag of sea yarns, as the subtitle suggests, and no one tells a yarn better than Winchester. But the author has a larger scheme in mind. "One might say that if the Mediterranean had long been the inland sea of the classical civilization, then the Atlantic Ocean had in time replaced it by becoming the inland sea of Western Civilization" — the wellspring of the "Atlantic Community" that has dominated most of the past 400 years. Hasn't the ocean itself, he asks, shaped our past and future in ways more powerful and diverse than we recognize?
It's a teasing thought — and all that Winchester needs to usher us aboard a 495-page voyage of discovery ranging almost from the primeval ooze of millennia long past to the environmental concerns of the early 21st century. But the winds propelling us on that voyage are often Winchester's breezy adventures.
It's all great fun. How could it not be with a writer who describes his subject as "a sinuous snakelike river of an ocean, stretching . . . from the Stygian fogs of the north to the Roaring Forties in the south, riven with deeps in its western chasms, dangerous with shallows in eastern plains, a place of cod and flying fish . . . of gyres of Sargasso weed and . . . unborn hurricanes, a place of icebergs and . . . giant squid and jellyfish and their slow-and-steady southern majesties, the great and glorious wandering albatrosses"?