Pacific

Picture the Pacific Ocean. It is the largest body of water on Earth, containing more than 10,000 miles of uninterrupted sea and so big it could harbor all seven continents with room for more. How could one author capture the history of such a massive geographical feature in a single book? Prolific historian Simon Winchester admits that he cannot. Instead, he takes a page from Stefan Zweig whose works capture the seminal moments of his subjects in ten essays. Winchester applies this same approach to Pacific, a book whose subtitle (Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers) is as ambitious as the work itself.

Winchester commences his history on January 1, 1950, widely acknowledged by science as the beginning of the present, and an especially helpful date for carbon dating purposes. Winchester notes that since much of the carbon-14 pollution that led to this division in history came from atomic testing in the Pacific, this is an appropriate starting point for the story of the modern Pacific. Declaring that “the Pacific is an ocean of secrets,” Winchester takes great joy in diving into some of the ocean’s more fascinating tales and, as a brilliant storyteller, he is able to weave fact and anecdote while employing a wry, conversational tone.

Each chapter is a new wave that sweeps readers off their feet and carries them happily from the end of colonialism to Jack London’s relationship to surfing, from coral reef bleaching to Australia’s coming-of-age. One especially fascinating chapter explores atomic bomb testing on the Marshall Islands, capturing the plight of the permanently displaced residents of Bikini Atoll and the reactions of those who observed the bomb blasts (one Soviet professor dismissively shrugged off the bomb as “not so much”) as well as the American government’s astonishingly cavalier approach to the whole endeavor.

Later Winchester returns to the South Pacific in his chapter about climate change, discussing the very real concern that rising sea levels will soon submerge many of the inhabited islands. A recent New York Times article focuses on the slowly disappearing Marshall Islands, and the topic has weighed heavily in recent discussions at the World Climate Summit in Paris.

Why the Pacific and why now? Winchester argues that if the Mediterranean is the sea for ancient times and if the Atlantic represents the modern world, the Pacific is the ocean of tomorrow. Believing that “what transpires across these sixty-four million square miles of ultramarine ocean matters,” Winchester tackles the ocean with engaging fervor and a hint of precaution, for what happens in the Pacific has ramifications for the rest of the world.