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Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms,and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories Hardcover – November 2, 2010

3.7 out of 5 stars 161 customer reviews

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Product Description
Blending history and anecdote, geography and reminiscence, science and exposition, the New York Times bestselling author of Krakatoa tells the breathtaking saga of the magnificent Atlantic Ocean, setting it against the backdrop of mankind's intellectual evolution.

Until a thousand years ago, no humans ventured into the Atlantic or imagined traversing its vast infinity. But once the first daring mariners successfully navigated to far shores—whether it was the Vikings, the Irish, the Chinese, Christopher Columbus in the north, or the Portuguese and the Spanish in the south—the Atlantic evolved in the world's growing consciousness of itself as an enclosed body of water bounded by the Americas to the West, and by Europe and Africa to the East. Atlantic is a biography of this immense space, of a sea which has defined and determined so much about the lives of the millions who live beside or near its tens of thousands of miles of coast.

The Atlantic has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists and warriors, and it continues to affect our character, attitudes, and dreams. Poets to potentates, seers to sailors, fishermen to foresters—all have a relationship with this great body of blue-green sea and regard her as friend or foe, adversary or ally, depending on circumstance or fortune. Simon Winchester chronicles that relationship, making the Atlantic come vividly alive. Spanning from the earth's geological origins to the age of exploration, World War II battles to modern pollution, his narrative is epic and awe-inspiring.

A Q&A with Author Simon Winchester

Q: Writing a “biography” of a massive subject like the Atlantic Ocean is audacious and seemingly daunting. What inspired you to write the book, how long did it take you, and what did your research entail?

Winchester: It occurred to me one afternoon while, for the umpteenth time, I was crossing ‘the pond’ on a flight between London and New York, that we took the waters below us far too much for granted. I thought back to the first crossing I had ever made, back in 1963, on a ship—and the romance of the ocean as I saw it then—and I decided that it could be very interesting to look into the role the Atlantic has played in humankind’s history. I spent the next eighteen months travelling, going everywhere from the Faroes and Iceland in the north, to Tristan da Cunha and Patagonia in the south. The book itself took eight months to write, four to edit.

Q: What was the most unusual or fascinating fact you discovered while researching and writing Atlantic?

Winchester: I remain intrigued by the thought that the State of Israel was in effect born as a result of a lack of cordite in the Royal Navy’s ammunition stores during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1916. A White Russian biologist, Chaim Weizmann, at the time a professor at the University of Manchester, worked out how to solve this problem, and when the British government of the time offered to reward him for his game-changing invention, he declined—asking only for Arthur Balfour to make his famous Declaration of 1917, which led to the formation of Israel.

Q: Why is the Atlantic significant in the development of Western civilization? Is there one important thing about the ocean we should know but do not?

Winchester: The first true parliamentary democracy was founded in the Atlantic, in Iceland in the tenth century—and the concept spread rapidly through northern Europe. It was then followed in short order by the establishment of a similarly organized network of traders and trade routes, the so-called Hanseatic leaguers. That two such crucial aspects of modern human civilization—government and trade—are based still today on principles laid down beside the Atlantic Ocean is a fact little remembered by most —and when I found the story out, it astonished and delighted me.

Q: You are a sailor yourself. Have you sailed the Atlantic? What was the experience like?

Winchester: I have sailed the entire Indian Ocean; and I have sailed a little in the South Atlantic—undertaking the voyage in a tiny (30ft) steel gaff-rigged schooner. But while I had few major problems sailing between the coasts of India and South Africa, once I had ‘rounded the bend’, as it were, and passed into the Atlantic, everything changed: the sea became very rough and (a particular problem in a steel yacht) very cold. And so I abandoned the Atlantic attempt—a decision that gives me ever greater respect today for the ocean itself, and for those sailors who are brave and determined enough to sail it. (In my defense—since 16 year olds now make the journey—I should point out that I went out without radio or radar, and with only a sextant as a navigation aid. GPS and e-mail make modern yachting a somewhat less arduous business. But the inescapable fact that I wiped out troubles me still. A bit.)

Q: How do today’s giant cruise ships compare to their predecessors like the Queen Mary or the Titanic? Have we lost something fundamental in how we experience the ocean with modernization?

Winchester: I detest the big cruise ships of today, immense Vegas style monstrosities filled with amusements specifically designed—or so it seems—utterly to detach the passenger from the realities of the ocean he is crossing (and to make even more money for the shipowners, of course). One surely goes to sea to experience the sea, it seems to me—and if you are in a gigantic floating play-center, and one that barely moves with the waves, then why not just stay home, and in doing so burn less fuel and pollute the world a little less?

Q: Is it possible for 21st century humans to regain a sense of awe and respect for this magnificent natural wonder? What might it take for us to do so?

Winchester: It is my fond hope that just a few good people who may read and like this book will stop for a moment, and perhaps then begin to think about and regard the ocean in a different way. And then maybe go down to the shore and look at it, and consider some of its wonders. And then, most importantly, tell the next generation that this body of water, like all the great oceanic bodies of water on the planet, is a rare and precious entity deserving of our care and our respect. I realize this may be no more than wishful thinking: but after writing this book I have come to feel a very powerful connection with the Atlantic Ocean, and I so very much want others to look at it in the same way.

Q: How does the Atlantic compare to other oceans? What makes it special/unique?

Winchester: Of the world’s great oceans the Atlantic is not the biggest; it is not the prettiest; it is not the most benign. But it does possess the greatest concentration of the marker-events of human history. And if, as seems unarguable, the Mediterranean could once fairly be said to have been the inland sea of classical civilization, then surely the Atlantic Ocean, by virtue of this huge concentration of ideas, events, inventions and developments, has become, and unarguably also, the inland sea of modern civilization. No other ocean comes close to filling this role – which is why the Atlantic rises, head and shoulders, above all of its taller, prettier and calmer maritime cousins.

From Publishers Weekly

Winchester, bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, returns to the natural world with his epic new book, a "biography" of the Atlantic Ocean, from its origins 370 million years ago through the population of its shores by humanity and their interactions with it. He sees the Atlantic as the vital ingredient in the blooming of Western civilization. He scrutinizes the early explorations from the Vikings and Norsemen through Columbus, detailing the perils of the open sea. With his excellent research and engrossing anecdotes about the ocean as "a living thing," Winchester spotlights its inspiration on poets, painters, and writers in its majestic beauty. Although he does not neglect the chief tragedies of the Atlantic, like the slave trade and the maritime battles, Winchester occasionally flits beelike from scene to scene, and the facts become lost in a blur. Maybe this is the price for such a monumental undertaking. Nevertheless, Winchester's sea saga is necessary reading for those who want to understand the planet better, even as, he notes, our waters are rapidly changing from pollution, overfishing, and climate change. 44 b&w illus.; 4 maps. (Nov.) (c)
Copyright © PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (November 2, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061702587
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061702587
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (161 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #571,024 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Robert Busko VINE VOICE on November 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Simon Winchester's Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is an arm chair explorers dream and yet another installment in a growing list of terrific books. Filled to brimming with stories of exploration and heroic figures, Winchester sees the Atlantic Ocean as the well spring from which all (or the major part) of European history and greatness finds its roots. Atlantic is as much a biography of the Atlantic Ocean as any other biography and a detailed examination of how some of mankind has interacted with that ocean and been affected by it.

Not wanting to omit anything, Winchester begins the story with an investigation into the formation of the Atlantic basic 370 million years ago and rapidly advances to relatively modern times. Vikings, Norsemen, Portuguese, Dutchmen, the French, English, all have their place in Winchester's book. The title includes the phrase "Million Stories" and surely this is true. As I was reading Atlantic, I was often mindful of the fact that the stories included in the book aren't all of the stories; that there are more forgotten tales than there are remembered tales. That realization is numbing when you think about it.

Still, Winchester has managed to pull together a gripping read. If you're a lover of adventure and history you'll want to spend some time with Atlantic.

Simon Winchester's previous works include three terrific books among other writings. The Professor and the Madman (1998), The Map that Changed the World (2001), and The Crack at the Edge of the World (2005) are all extremely readable and highly interesting. Atlantic is certainly equally interesting.

I highly recommend Atlantic by Simon Winchester.

Peace always.
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I have enjoyed a number of Winchester's books, but this was not one of them. He is at his best when he is detailing a story that is not well-known and surprising. That was what drove the success of his previous work. In this book, he takes on an enormous subject and ends up with a catalog of his research interspersed with totally unsupported assertions and some rather dull writing about his travels.

The structural problem with the book is that Winchester has chosen a cumbersome thematic structure to organize his writing: the seven stages of man listed in the "All the world's a stage..." speech from As You Like It. While this may have seemed like a clever way to tackle a sprawling subject like the Atlantic, the structure overwhelms any insight Winchester may or may not have had about the Atlantic. Seeking to fill this outline, Winchester stuffs everything into it that either (a) features the words "sea" or "Atlantic" or (b) happens to have taken place in or near the Atlantic. The result is a combination of the obvious (jet travel ended regular ocean liner service) or the downright tautological (in a section on "cities," Winchester writes brief descriptions of New York, Cape Town, St. Helena, none of which have any connection to each other and all of which essentially boil down to the pointless statement 'these are Atlantic cities because they are on the Atlantic ocean.")

Unsupported assertions abound. Apparently, musical instruments were not powerful enough before the 18th century to tackle the sea as a subject (whatever that may mean in the context of music). The "paramount" issue in the story of the Pilgrims is the Atlantic. What? How do you back that up?
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I seriously doubt that readers who begin this book will actually complete their reading of it. It is a jumble of unconnected thoughts and very dubious history. It lacks coherence and tautness in the writing -- I personally found it hard to stick with it for more than a few pages at a time. The coverage of naval warfare, the slave trade, and history of navigation is kaleidoscopic -- a grab bag of individual assertions that in many areas are at best selective and in some downright misleading. It's all surface, with the author an often intrusive presence. The writing is smooth and accomplished but it's rather like a dinner guest pontificating to a captive group -- keeping some spellbound and switching off the rest.

Obviously, other reviewers enjoyed it and highlighted its strengths as "entertainment", so my own lack of enthusiasm may reflect that I wanted content rather than the pleasant and often smooth broad brush that is a good feature of the writing. I suggest that you download some sample pages before deciding whether or not to buy it. If you feel on the same wavelength as the author, then it may well be a special read. If, like me, you find it difficult to engage with the writing or have the same concerns about the selectivity of the analysis and examples, then at best you'll skim it and skip ahead more than you stay with the writing.
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Simon Winchester is one of my favorite authors. I have read all of his books and did not wait long to order this, his newest. It started like several of his others with a geologist's explanation of history... always interesting. He then laid out the vital importance of the ocean to human evolution, civilization, exploration, and history... good stuff but lacking the detail and real human accounts of Krakatoa or Crack at the Edge of the World.

The disappointment for me was that a large portion of the book is devoted to Dr. Winchester's view on how climate change is affecting the Atlantic and speculation on what future impact it will have. He gives anecdotal stories without solid science or data references and seems to imply that whatever changes have occurred are the result of man's use of the ocean an are harmful or bad - not just historical changes. I felt as if I'd been tricked into reading a case for man-caused global warming. Winchester is obviously passionate about the Atlantic and concerned about its future. However, I bought the book as a historical retrospective and did not care to read an exhaustive op-ed about climate change.
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