Center of the World
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A biography of an ocean supplemented by the autobiographical impressions of an ocean-lover.
Simon Winchester's "Atlantic"
Paperback. 495 pages.
Nov. 1, 2011 (Paperback edition). Harper Perennial.
Let me just begin by saying this: Simon Winchester is smarter than all of us. Not in a pretentious, frustrating manner -- but in a polymathic, charming, admirable, enviable, Benjamin Franklin-ish manner. When I read Simon Winchester's books -- books which include The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded: August 27, 1883, A Crack In The Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, and his most recent title, Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories (Harper Perennial paperback edition to be released on November 1, 2011) -- I am not only consistently entertained and enthralled by his storytelling, but constantly learning about the fascinating subjects that he chooses to illuminate.
I'm a person who was born and bred on the West Coast and is intimately familiar with the Pacific Ocean. While I've never dipped my toes in the Atlantic Ocean, I'm certainly well aware of its importance, its beauty, its power, and most of its history as a center of civilization and commerce throughout human existence. In Winchester's Atlantic -- originally released last year and now in paperback from Harper Perennial with an expanded P.S. section featuring bonus interviews and insight from Winchester -- the best-selling British-born author (who became an American citizen just this past summer during an Independence Day ceremony aboard the USS Constitution), journalist, and Oxford-trained geologist tells story of how the Atlantic Ocean was formed, its influence in the lives of everything that has ever existed on this planet, its threats (as well as its potential threat to us), and what the future holds for what was once thought to be the edge of the world yet turned out to be perhaps the center.
Atlantic is an adventure. Winchester explores the ocean's seemingly limitless reaches and helps us understand that the massive Atlantic will likely never be totally explored or understood by mere man. Yet, this isn't a dry scientific textbook. Although Winchester masterfully teaches us not only the geography but the geology of the forces which create, sustain, and continuously shape the Atlantic Ocean, Atlantic is also a story about human achievements and failures, and the cycle and evolution of nature's many forms. Winchester also uniquely weaves his own personal experiences into the narrative, which makes Atlantic a biography of an ocean supplemented by autobiographical impressions from an unabashed ocean-lover.
One of my favorite things about Atlantic is Winchester's assertion that while humans can certainly harm the ocean with our pollution, overfishing, overpopulation, and other human problems, it is almost arrogant to believe that we'll destroy the ocean which has existed for millions of years prior to our arrival and will survive millions of years after we have vanished. Instead, anything we might be doing to the ocean is really just a vehicle for damaging or destroying ourselves. While humans debate climate change, our effect on global warming, and consider whether humans are contributing to the creation of massive storms like 2005's Hurricane Katrina and how we might be able to remedy that situation, Winchester sums it up more simply towards the end of Atlantic:
All that can be stated with certainty is a very obvious reality: that recent Atlantic storms have been lethal and costly not because there are more of them, but because more people have settled and more expensive buildings have been built in the places where the storms have happened to strike.
So the best short-term solution to the regular destruction of so many Gulf and Atlantic coastal communities perhaps needs to be started again: it requires not so much any need to cool the world, but to persuade people not to come to live in those places where, habitually, the world goes mad. There are many excellent reasons for wanting to limit carbon emissions, but preventing storm damage to American coastal communities is not one of them. The communities should never have been built. Strip the vulnerable coastlines of Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas of great mansions and sprawling oil refineries and strip malls and country clubs and casinos, and suggest to the inhabitants that they move inland and away from the hurricane corridors -- then to a degree the human problem solves itself. The tropical Atlantic Ocean and its neighbor seas are capable of very great violence -- perhaps greater today than ever before. Until they can be permitted or persuaded to calm down, the best immediate solution is simply to keep their waters and their winds at arm's length. So long as the ocean is still going on, then down in hurricane land perhaps mankind should be thinking about going away.
Winchester's point is devastatingly simple -- maybe humanity's problem isn't that we are harming the environment, but rather the hubristic belief that humans can challenge something as powerful and enduring as the Atlantic Ocean and win.
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is a superb book. It is history and science, geology and oceanography, human and nature, political and environmental, biography and autobiography, adventure and travelogue. Simon Winchester is not only a wonderful storyteller and compelling writer, but a lucid reporter and a cogent teacher. The paperback edition of Atlantic will be released on November 1, 2011 from Harper Perennial, with a P.S. section full of bonus features.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.