Photo: Atlantic Ocean by South Africa's Western Cape

Simon Winchester's new book takes on the enormous topic of the Atlantic Ocean. Here the ocean meets South Africa's Western Cape.

Photograph by Massimo Ripani, Sime

By Don George

November 2010

Book of the Month: Atlantic, by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester has tackled some enormous topics in his journalistic career, among them the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, the birth of modern geology, and the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. But in his new book he takes on the most daunting subject yet—the biography of the Atlantic Ocean. (At this rate, his next books are likely to be entitled Earth and then Cosmos.

Fashioning an epic picture-puzzle of the Atlantic Ocean, Winchester ranges from the landmass-wrenching rifts that ten million years ago created the “sinuous snakelike river of an ocean” to 21st-century Newfoundland, where the absence of once abundant cod embodies a stunning lesson. 

One of Winchester’s most transporting passages is his description of the South African cape where some of the first humans settled by the ocean’s shore. He recreates their initial tentative discovery of pools “fronded with green and furtive with darting movement,” “furiously alive with creatures”—nutritious and easily gathered.

Marrying exhaustive research with exhilarating storytelling, Winchester’s precise, intimate, and encyclopedic evocation proves as inexhaustibly rich as the watery body it embraces.


New-Book Roundups:

Inspired by Steinbeck

Two new books take their inspiration from John Steinbeck’s classic Travels with Charley. Bill Barich’s Long Way Home traces twisting Route 50 from New York to San Francisco in the summer of 2008. Barich creates a montage of the U.S. at a critical juncture of political tension and economic meltdown. Gregory Zeigler’s Travels with Max also follows Steinbeck’s journey, this time with a dog named Max, in a similar quest to understand the contemporary U.S. 

Sun and Ice

In Chasing the Sun, Richard Cohen travels from Arizona to Italy, through over 20 countries, drawing connections between the sun and each destination’s culture, science, religion, and language. Tess Burrows’s Cold Hands, Warm Heart recounts the British grandmother’s participation in the South Pole Race, an epic trek struggling against the elements, bearing messages of world peace to the Pole. 

European Romances

Adrienne Sharp sets her novel, The True Memoirs of Little K, in turn-of-the-20th-century St. Petersburg, where a Russian prima ballerina becomes mistress to the aristocrat who will be Czar Nicholas II. Backstage drama, court intrigue, and political revolution drive Sharp’s sweeping tale. Peter Ackroyd, author of the biographies London and Thames, now tackles La Serenissima in Venice: Pure City, which delves delightfully into topics ranging from the city’s first refugees to the mosaics of St. Mark’s and the glassblowers of Murano.


One Last Thing:

A Photographer’s Legacy of Love

One of the greatest honors of my early years as a travel editor was working with Galen Rowell, a photo-artist and adventurer who was widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent mountain photographer of his generation. While he traveled to all seven continents for magazine articles and books, Rowell called the Eastern Sierra his “favorite place on Earth”; he had even bought a house there in 2000, two years before his death in a tragic plane crash. Galen Rowell’s Sierra Nevada, compiled by the editors of Sierra Club Books, presents more than 70 of Rowell’s Sierra-scapes made over a period of almost four decades; this sumptuously produced collection demonstrates the breadth and depth of Rowell’s photographic achievement—as a connoisseur of light, as a master of high-country techniques, and as an enraptured guide to his adopted home.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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