Simon Winchester's subtitle encapsulates the major challenge he faced when he decided to write a geographical biography of 33 million square miles of sea water, one quarter of the planet's total water. How could he give shape to such a great and heaving mass of facts?
One such fact is that of the 300,000 men press-ganged into Britain's Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, only 16 rose to become officers. Another such fact is that when the dashing aviators Alcock and Brown made the first transatlantic flight in June, 1919, a pair of black cats called Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim accompanied them. Fascinating information, but how could the acclaimed British author integrate these disparate details into a coherent narrative?
The challenge would have defeated a less accomplished writer. But this is Winchester's 20th book, and in previous works such as Krakatoa, A Crack in the Edge of the World and The Professor and the Madman, he has honed his skills as a writer who makes science accessible and brings long-forgotten people back to life. A born storyteller, he wears his erudition lightly and knows how to link past and present. Cabot and Nelson are here, but so are Chaim Weizman and Prince Albert I of Monaco.
Winchester puts himself firmly into the story, so the reader always feels his reassuring presence and confident control of the narrative. Threaded through this elegant compilation of marine life are accounts of his own extraordinary adventures, which include being stranded by ice in Greenland as winter approached and being locked in a prison cell in southern Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.
Atlantic begins with Winchester, then 18, boarding a great Canadian Pacific ocean liner, the Empress of Britain, in Liverpool in 1963, for his first transatlantic crossing: "I was excited, apprehensive, nervous. I watched my parents as they started to walk back to our tiny tan Ford Prefect, their heads bowed." The voyage took seven days, six hours and seven minutes.
But only seven more Atlantic crossings lay ahead for the Empress of Britain: Six months later, Winchester himself returned to England by air. Today's transatlantic travellers rarely even glance at the vast, wrinkled ocean below them during their six- or seven-hour flights. Winchester asked himself on a recent flight how a sea that only 500 years ago had seemed an impassable barrier had now shrunk into a mere bridge between two continents? He decided he wanted to write the story of the ocean, and humankind's evolving relationship with it. And he solved the structural challenge - how to shape that story - by turning to Shakespeare.
He uses the famous speech in As You Like It that outlines the seven stages of a man's life, "All the world's a stage …," as his framework. "At first the infant, mewling and puking …" heads up the first chapter, which covers the first tentative, shore-hugging voyages along the ocean's eastern edge. In chapter two, introduced by the "whining schoolboy, with his satchel," Winchester charts the attempts by amateur and professional oceanographers to map the ocean's edges, currents, shoals and depths.
And so on, through such stages as the soldier "bearded like a pard," which is a hook for a chapter on slavery, pirates and great naval battles, and the "lean and slipper'd pantaloon," who heads up the chapter on pollution of Atlantic water and air quality, and erosion of its fish stocks. The story of government-mishandled cod stocks off the Grand Banks is told here with agonizing relish.
Not being a sailor or explorer myself, I occasionally flagged. But then one of Winchester's pithy observations would catch my attention. In the chapter devoted to Shakespeare's "lover, sighing like a furnace," Winchester surveys writers, composers, architects and artists. He notes that American sea writing is more muscular than marine literature from England, and suggests this reflects the different landscapes that writers occupy. English writers, from Trollope to Woolf, occupied a small, crowded set of islands, and regarded the ocean as "precious and unique, something of a refuge."
In contrast, writers such as Melville and Poe lived on a continent as large and challenging as its neighbouring seas, and projected onto the ocean the same loneliness and need for endurance as America's impenetrable forests and mountain ranges demanded.
"The final moment of the Atlantic's existence will come in about 170 million years," Winchester writes in his epilogue to this engaging, original book. There is a curious optimism to Atlantic, partly because the author believes that humans will change their behaviour to fend off ecological disaster, but mostly because he thinks in geologic rather than human time frames. Shifting tectonic plates will eventually squeeze continents together and the Atlantic will disappear. But it will have existed for 400 million years. Humankind will have existed for perhaps 200,000 of those years.
Charlotte Gray's latest book is Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike. On her only transatlantic voyage, Hurricane Alma hit her ship. She was the only passenger in the dining room that day.