Friday, 7 January 2011

"Atlantic", Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is one of the authors who, without making a big splash, somehow manages to place his prolific output on my bookshelves without me really noticing. Thus, when I returned from Norway to an impromptu gift of his new “Atlantic” it prompted me to quickly take stock. From the at times derided “Pacific Nightmare” (which still remains as the book I think most scathingly reviewed by the Economist) through “The Map the Changed the World” and “A Crack in the Edge of the World”, among many others, it's clear he's written a lot, and there seems to be a disproportionate amount of it in my library.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Winchester manages to fuse geography, history, and personal anecdote in a genuinely engaging way. His wide ranging 'biography' of the Atlantic Ocean defies classification, but is an absorbing and genuinely fun read, peppered with the sort of material that you want to file away for use in witty and intelligent conversation, or perhaps even better, spurs you read more widely and explore the world hinted at within the confines of Winchester's text.

The subtitle of “A vast ocean of a million stories” hints at the truth of the book - it's not history, biography, geography, or economics, it's an Atlantic miscellany that will not make you an expert on any of these subjects, and as such commenting on specifics of the book becomes difficult. It’s the sort of work that I want to say rewards dipping into, but it doesn’t, it probably does need to be read in a linear fashion, that way the stream of anecdote sinks in, engages, and makes you smile.

A lot of the book requires you to already be pretty au fait with the subjects Winchester is talking about. If you’re unaware of the finer points of Norwegian cuisine (aside, working for a Norwegian company and thus spending a lot of time in that part of the world I perhaps have an unfair advantage) the comment that Amerigo Vespucci is still held by Americans to be the ‘discoverer’ of the New World largely down to pizza being more popular than lutefisk may pass you by.

Throughout the tone is entertaining, opinionated, and wearing its heart on its sleeve hints at the tremendous fun that must have been had in researching the book. Vignettes pop up and make you want to yearn for a post-it note to mark the position, or, in a 21st century way I would send myself emails with cryptic text such as “entertaining anecdote Russian seascape painting p.167” (go on, look it up). Thus, for all that there are times when you may disagree with Winchester, such as with his scathing view of the simultaneous ugliness of contemporary container ships and Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture, you can’t really begrudge him.

Having introduced modernism, let’s talk a little about intextuality. Winchester talks about the Atlantic’s impact on culture through the centuries, but in not quite bringing it up to date I sense a missed opportunity. Covering the ocean’s impact on music, Gilbert and Sullivan is about as pop culture as it gets. This misses the chance to talk about Rod Stewart and 1975’s “Atlantic Crossing” (which of course concludes with the rather apposite “Sailing”) or indeed the magnificently overblown British indie band British Sea Power, who must win prizes for having “Scapa Flow” in a song lyric and managing to put together a monumentally conceptual instrumental soundtrack inspired by life on the Aran Islands. This isn’t however a criticism, more a reflection that Simon Winchester and I have different cultural stimuli, and I suspect that every reader will be able to find points where they wish more had been talked about.

There probably aren’t a million stories contained in “Atlantic”, and truth be told there probably are rather more than a million that could be told. Nobody should worry about this, nobody should buy this hoping that it will be an encyclopaedic exploration of everything to do with the Atlantic Ocean (perhaps along the lines of Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean), but anyone aspiring to have an enhanced repertoire of dinner party anecdotes should absolutely read it.

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