In this outing, Winchester has attempted a history of the Pacific Ocean – a vast undertaking, even given that he has limited himself to events since the end of WW1. In the book’s lengthy introduction, he explains how he eventually settled on the approach he has taken, focusing on a different aspect of Pacific-related history in each chapter. Much better, I think we can all agree, than a chronological account that would necessarily tangle hundreds of disparate story threads into an unintelligible knot.
With every chapter devoted to a different aspect of the history of the Pacific ocean, I suspect many readers will find this an uneven read: it’s hard to imagine a reader who’s equally as interested in the history of U.S. atomic testing (chapter 1) and the semiconductor revolution (chapter 2), the evolution of surfing (chapter 3) and little-known chapters of the Korean conflict (chapter 4), the fate of the RMS Queen Elizabeth (chapter 5) and supercyclones (chapter 6), wacky Emperial politics (Chapter 7) and undersea hot spots (chapter 8), the perils of climate change (chapter 9) and geopolitical squabbling over international waters (chapter 10). (All of the aforementioned topics, by the way, are foreshadowed in the book’s subtitle – “Silicon Chips and Surboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers” – so at least you can’t say you weren’t warned!)
Having said that, Winchester’s done his usual adept job of stuffing every chapter to the brim with obscure but entertaining bits of history, science, and politics – not entirely unexpected, given that obscure history is Winchester’s specialty. (This is the same guy who wrote “The Professor and the Madman,” about a mental patient’s contributions to the first dictionary, and “The Map That Changed the World,” about an obscure naturalist who created the first geological map.) I’m fairly knowledgeable when it comes to history and world events, but many of the tales recounted in these chapters were new to me – which, frankly, is why I keep reading his canon. Some of Winchester’s anecdotes are, one could argue, deservedly obscure; many, however, provoke fascination, astonishment, enlightenment, and/or thoughtful reflection.
In summary, this book reminded me of why it’s important to read history. Whether you bother to read that whole chapter on surfing or skip straight to the atomic testing, we should all be grateful there are historians like Winchester out there, working their hardest to remind us that: (1) what we learn in school is maybe 5% of what actually happened; (2) those who don’t take the time to learn from the mistakes of history inevitably repeat the same mistakes; and (3) every organism and system on Earth is intractably interrelated – pluck on one string, and the resonance of that action has the potential to shake the whole world.