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book review

‘Pacific’ by Simon Winchester

The Pacific Ocean conjures images of steamy island paradises, sensual tropical flowers, surfboards, suntans, the stuff of Beach Boys’ songs, and color-saturated travel brochures.

Also in the ocean’s embrace comes colonialism at its ugliest, human-rights violations, extreme environmental abuse, the extinction of cultures and creatures. It’s the world’s largest body of water, and given its vastness it’s no surprise that it can hold all these oppositions. And in his biography of the Pacific, Simon Winchester tries to make the argument that where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic were keys to the past, the Pacific is the ocean of the future, that what happens in it and along its rim will touch the lives of us all.


His method involves examining 10 key moments in the ocean’s recent history. But those moments feel like only that, a string of disparate events — political, environmental, cultural, recreational, scientific. The overall feel is something akin to a hastily assembled boat, fun enough at first, but ultimately unseaworthy and ready to sink.

It starts well. Winchester, known for popular histories including “The Professor and the Madman’’ and” The Men Who United the States,’’ has a smooth and easy prose style, one that is trustable and clear. He devotes a chapter to each of the events he highlights, all of them having taken place between January 1950 and last summer. It’s digestible, not overly dense; the reader on this cruise is not often swamped with waves of dates or dry, sun-bleached facts.

The opening two chapters — on nuclear testing at sea during the Truman administration (people displaced; islands wrecked; lives lost; tests bungled) and the post-war invention of the transistor radio in Japan, are strong. You’ll find yourself floating along on Winchester’s prose, speckled as it is with bits of cocktail-party sparkle (the Japanese brand name Sony, for example, was born out of a combination of the Latin word for sound, sonus, and the word “sonny,’’ popular in mid-1950s America).


Winchester’s background is, in part, that of the travel writer, and he excels at guiding the reader with a contagious sense of wonder. A section on finding life in the darkest depths of the ocean and the power of hydrothermal vents that rise out of fissures on the sea floor excites in its excavation of mystery and the way it points to pockets of the Earth we still don’t know much about.

Lulled by his sonorous prose, however, it’s easy to miss large gaps, big leaps, loose thinking. The chapter on surfing is especially thin. He describes the sport as “the purest joy imaginable,” “the Pacific Ocean’s most sublime and lasting gift to playtime,” a “singular pursuit of human happiness.” But the takeaway is little else.

His chapter on environmental shifts and global warming sets out a clear and valuable map of the web of impact and influence that the warming planet has on all aspects of life. Then he closes the chapter this way: “The ocean’s monstrous size puts it in a position to let the planet go thermally wild for a time, to wobble dangerously. But then, like a formidable gyroscope, the Pacific will dampen the excess, help bring sanity back, and will restore calm, serenity, and normality.” And while he acknowledges this is a view “maybe born of all too little science,” it seems a reductive and irresponsible summing up. Not to worry!, he seems to say. The Pacific is so big!


Also worth noting is the marked lack of women in the book. There are a couple paragraphs on a racist Australian politician. Two women scientists are mentioned. Gidget, the fictionalized surf bunny, gets the most ink. She’s described as “the little shrimp of a girl, a pint-size emblem of determination, courage, and adventure” and a “lithe little heroine.”

Other notable female presences in the book? Boats. The Queen Elizabeth was “the loveliest ocean liner the world had ever seen . . . a ship of longing and allure and fine cuisine, of passions promised on her moonlit taffrail, of romances hatched in the sway of her grand saloons.” It seems that the ocean should be big enough to support a few more women in its history. Maybe more research would’ve dredged more women from the depths of the past.

The “Notes on Sources” section at the end includes this red flag: “on those few occasions where I mention that a particular researcher or institution . . . has produced ‘many publications’ that are relevant to a particular topic, I have decided to leave it to the interested reader to undertake the necessary Internet search. To include references to everything written would consume a great deal of valuable space.” For a topic that covers over 30 percent of the Earth’s surface, a few more pages of sources seems like small space to spare.


PACIFIC: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers

By Simon Winchester

Harper, 492 pp., illustrated, $28.99

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter” and can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.