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BookBrowse Reviews Pacific by Simon Winchester

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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

Pacific by Simon Winchester X
Pacific by Simon Winchester
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2015, 512 pages
    Oct 2016, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



The story of the ocean is captured through ten pivotal moments in world history.

Pacific is a sweeping overview of the ocean's recent history and the people who inhabit its lands and impact its future. The format Simon Winchester uses to capture this massive subject was inspired by Austrian author Stefan Zweig's 1927 volume, Shooting Stars. This collection of ten essays is crafted around what Zweig considered to be the "seminal moments in the tide of human experience." Winchester likewise chooses ten events to illustrate the various forces at work on and around the Pacific Ocean since 1950. (Interestingly, Winchester chose this date to start his history because scientists refer to it as "year zero," the year at which carbon dating becomes an unreliable measure. Human experiments with atomic weapons make the technique increasingly inaccurate.)

The selected incidents constitute a rather eclectic collection, and include such diverse topics as the creation of the first Japanese transistor radio, the eruption of the Philippine volcano Mt. Pinatubo, and the introduction of the surfboard to popular culture. Each chapter is fascinating, and although one can wonder why the author picked the subjects he did, no one can argue with the result: a kaleidoscopic, whirlwind tour of the ocean he believes will shape the future of not only the countries it borders but that of the entire planet.

Each chapter begins with a specific date and event, and expands out from that central focus. For example, one chapter highlights the 1972 sinking of RMS Queen Elizabeth off Hong Kong but then branches out to a discussion on colonialism in the Pacific. In another, a 1950 speech by American President Harry Truman about nuclear enegery is the basis for a review of the devastation to the Pacific Islands and their native populations that resulted from nuclear testing conducted by the United States for decades after Truman's decision. The result is not so much a coherent, start-to-finish history of the region as it is a series of fascinating snapshots that when put together forms a broad picture of it. It's not complete by any means, but it does move the reader toward a deeper understanding of the important part the Pacific has played in humanity's recent past and the role it's destined to play.

Winchester's prose is entertaining and keeps the book moving along at a fine clip – something rather remarkable given the book's complexity and vast scope; I was engrossed throughout most of it, in spite of the incredible amount of detail he incorporates. His encyclopedic knowledge and extensive travels are impressive, and he certainly comes across as authoritative.

Nevertheless Pacific seems overly biased at times. Much of the author's introduction covers the sorry state of affairs in Micronesia due to the influence of the American government, a subject he revisits in a preface entitled "On Carbon" and yet again in the first chapter. Winchester's rage at what the United States has done to the area is palpable and justified, but I felt he could have spread the blame around more. Indeed, with the exception of the Australians, against whom he also seems to have some bias, much of the work is quite critical of the role America has played in all that has gone wrong — radiation, pollution, poverty, exploitation, etc. — in the Pacific. The last chapter claims that the U.S. presence in Asian waters is in fact a destabilizing force, and that allowing China to unify the area would actually be better. I'm not sure whether the author is correct or not, but I came away from the book feeling it was somewhat one-sided (and not feeling terribly great about being an American and thereby "guilty by association").

Pacific is sure to be another hit for Winchester, particularly for Baby Boomers like myself who have a passing familiarity with the events he highlights (I found myself constantly wondering where I was when each of episodes the author mentions occurred). Anyone interested in world history will also be sure to find it both absorbing and compelling. And while I might feel a tad offended around the edges by the author's seeming biases, I nonetheless learned a great deal from the book and it was well worth my time.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2015, and has been updated for the November 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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