The best Winchester books read like great novels: they are character-driven, with surprising plot turns, and unfold linearly, like a good story. “Atlantic” is none of these things, and yet it is still an enjoyable read. Winchester’s vague structure framework groups broad themes together: economic activity, exploration, geology, military conflict, politics, and more. He begins with the formation of the world and continues through the modern day, aiming to cover most areas of human interaction with the Atlantic, so he earns one star at least for the Titanic-sized ambition.
Many of Winchester’s stories and themes are familiar from other history and pop-history books: the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic, the Middle Passage of slavery, the Falkland Islands conflict, the early Portuguese navigators, cod fishing, global warming. At times, the stories go pretty far inland, and some are weighed down by over-long descriptive passages of the grayness of the sea.
Some of his claims are, as others have said, a bit of a stretch: I found his hinting that the Atlantic Ocean was responsible for parliamentary government (because Iceland had the first one) to seem particularly far-fetched.
However, in the final tally, stitching together all these stories in one book, which does move fairly quickly from topic to topic, is entertaining enough, and good panorama of human activity on the Atlantic Ocean.
In reading Winchester’s latest, I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s latest, “At Home.” Like Bryson’s book, “Atlantic” is bound together by a loose framework, switches stories, and feels disconnected. Yet almost every anecdote is entertaining: some personal, some ancient, some modern, some vast, some small.