When I finished The Meaning of Everything, I knew Simon Winchester would be returning to my book list and this blog. There’s something about his ability to write conversationally as well as intelligently that draws me in. So, when I discovered he had undertaken the writing of a biography of an entire ocean, I couldn’t resist for reasons that I will quickly explain. That had to be my next book.
Of course, there were some troubles along the way. I chose to read Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories in one of the busiest weeks I have yet had this year. So when I utterly failed to finish, I had to quickly substitute in the book about sentence diagramming from two weeks ago. Then, knowing that I had another busy week coming up, I chose another shorter book for last week. I managed to finish that book the day I began to read it, and so gave myself almost two full weeks to read a 459 page biography of the life of the Atlantic.
While the oceanographic elements are there, the true biography presented in Winchester’s Atlantic is the anthropological one: how has mankind’s life been affected and effected by the great ocean? In a brilliant stroke, Winchester answers this by arranging the book according to Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It. For the benefit of all, I include it here:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
When I began Atlantic, I was most assuredly the poem-writing lover, though my romance was, admittedly, with a different ocean. I was born mere miles from the Pacific and was raised with the deepest respect and, yes, love for its creatures, smells, sights, and sounds. Monterey Bay Aquarium was my toddler romping ground (I was thrilled to find the aquarium of my childhood, a distinctly Pacific institution, got an honorable mention in a book about the Atlantic). Most of the few photos and videos that have survived my youngest years feature me in water, the most popular of which is the video of me learning to swim at the tender age of three. Indeed, I have two memories of moving to Colorado when I was four and they both involve the unpacking process when I discovered what the movers had lost: a teddy bear I had owned from the cradle (whose companion, thankfully, still survives) and my shell collection from hours on the seashore. I could have forgotten the whole thing and lived with the teddy bear’s loss, for his companion remained. However, I have never fully forgiven those men because they lost my treasured connection to the ocean I had to leave behind. As you may have guessed, I am not truly at home if I am not near water.
However, as I am about to make my first hop over “The Pond” in a few short months, I felt it appropriate to read about the history of an ocean not my own. Even before I opened the book, I fully expected to be awed and excited as I flew over the Atlantic–after all, ocean is ocean, no matter what coast–but now that awe and excitement will be amplified by knowledge. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep at all on my trip over.
However, it wasn’t the romance of the sea, which I have felt all my life, that truly captivated me. It was the next chapter, “Here the Sea of Pity Lies,” the chapter of the soldier, that made the Atlantic real to me.
The Pacific Ocean has long been a fact in my life. I’ve played in its waters; I’ve swallowed a good portion of it; I’ve gained artistic inspiration in it and on its beaches; I’ve studied its biology and ecology; I’ve been sustained by its creatures and I’ve been comforted by it. It is part of me. The Atlantic, on the other hand, is just that ocean a scoundrel or two crossed to discover and name the continent upon which I live. And one of them didn’t even know what he was doing. (Seriously about the scoundrel part–everyone knows about Columbus and his merry ways, but how many people know that Amerigo Vespucci was a pimp? I certainly didn’t. Oh, the giants upon which we stand.) On Tuesday, it finally began to solidify into an ocean, rather than that S-shaped blue spot on the map.
Tuesday was the day I read chapter five. The chapter was about the wars fought, the wars so incredibly unique to the Atlantic, and it finally made that body real in my life. These were battles I had learned about in school, battles that had determined freedoms I’ve enjoyed! Lives that I had been taught to mourn since I was a child were put into context. The dark stain of slavery was brought nearer to me than it ever had been. I fell in love with the soldier, because I began to know myself through him.
History is our cruelest mirror, for it is unflinching in revealing in our mistakes. If we cannot find peace in our growth from them, we find madness. Winchester begins the chapter with someone on the edge who may yet find peace, but who is also well on his way to finding madness. This man was a member of the Argentine Navy during the Falklands conflict. When that navy sunk the HMS Sheffield, a nearly new British destroyer, this man ran to the British prisoners he was guarding, reporters who had been arrested on false charges and cried, “We have sunk one of your ships! We Argentines have sunk a Royal Navy ship! You are going to lose this war!”
Years later, this retired navy man contacted one of these reporters, none other than Winchester, because he needed to talk to him. Winchester describes that meeting:
. . . [T]he exultation he had expressed that night over the sinking of the Sheffield. That, he said, was terribly wrong.
For, he said, it had betrayed his principles as a navy man. Even though the British at the time were his enemies, he said, no sailor should ever take the kind of delight that he had taken on that cold May night in the foundering of another ship. No one should so ardently wish a vessel of any navy, or indeed any ship, ever to be sunk in the ocean. For it was his certain belief that to die alone at sea, in the emptiness of a wilderness of cold water, was just a terrible, terrible thing. “I am a good sailor,” he kept saying. He stared sightlessly into his glass, his eyes brimming. “I am a good sailor,” he repeated. “There is no pleasure to be taken over a thing like this. There is a brotherhood of the sea.”
I think there is a reason Winchester used this story to begin the chapter, as every time the cruelty of my own history stung a little too deeply, I remembered the crying sailor. Though I am not so silly as to assume blame for my ancestors’ actions, the horror I felt at their actions was instinctive. It was the same brotherhood, the same feeling that there should be no pleasure taken over the sorrows of another. I am a good person, I could tell myself, and I can learn from this.
There are other deeply profound moments in Atlantic. Once again, Winchester sings the song of the unsung heroes. The book is even dedicated to one that he feels is particularly unnoticed. I hope you read this book, partially because it’s just good, but also because of all the history of mankind that happened in this ocean. The context this book gave to world history and my own history was invaluable. Science, society, culture, business: it really doesn’t matter, the Atlantic Ocean was part of their development.
Heck of a pond.