I finished up 2016 with a beast of a non-fiction work, Simon Winchester’s Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators and Fading Empires, a sprawling, comprehensive history of the Pacific Ocean since January 1, 1950. Besides winning Clunkiest Subtitle of 2016, he traces the social, cultural, and political histories, as well as the geologic and ecologic histories, of the ocean and its peoples through 10 major events, their lead-ups, and their aftermaths. Seems like a lot, right? Winchester spends quite a bit of the prologue exploring how to tackle a history of the Pacific Ocean because the ocean, by its very nature, is amorphous, inconsistent, unknowable, and immense. He finally settles on his 10 vignettes, essays, really, exploring major themes through the lens of particular events that all happened in the latter half of the 20th century. Though at first seemingly arbitrary, he uses January 1, 1950 as his starting point because that is the date that defines “present day” in carbon dating. As such, this is a history of the Pacific Ocean in “present day” as the West begins its “pivot toward Asia”.
And with that, we were off, exploring nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands during the 1950’s, the health of coral reefs, the impact of the movie Gidget on surf culture, the birth of the Sony Corporation, the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth in Hong Kong, the formation of North Korea, and the eruption of Pinatubo in the Phillippines and its effect on American military strategy in the region, among many other things. And though each chapter is ostensibly about its main event, he uses this structure to cover all of the history he “tried” to filter out: for example, his discussion of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands gives a platform to discuss the history of Pacific Islander migration, methods of boat construction, the sociology of island life pre-and-post-nuclear testing, a brief history of international nuclear science, and the ethical and moral responsibility of the 21st century American government to the people still living there today.
As I said earlier, this is a sprawling beast of a book. However, I quite liked it. I like learning about a lot of things and how they connect, so Winchester’s structure worked for me. Each chapter was just focused enough around the theme that I stayed focused, but it was almost like going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole on a particular topic with a thoughtful, funny, and intelligent guide. In short, he contextualized extremely well, and I felt like I learned a lot of new things and gained new perspectives on information I was more familiar with. And Winchester is a lovely writer. Conversational, witty, and someone who clearly appreciates a good story, his style is like having a conversation with a great storyteller. There were definitely moments where the topic was not of great interest to me (though I know people who would LOVE the chapter on deep-sea hydrothermal vent formation and the life forms associated, I personally struggled a bit more with that one), Winchester handles a great many topics with skill. I have seen some reviews that call him out as being a better science writer than history writer (and I do have to say I never thought I would find Pacific high-atmosphere weather patterns quite as interesting) because he allows more of his own experience into the travel section. And while I do agree that sometimes his perspective or commentary is a bit (and perhaps surprisingly so) flippant, I don’t agree that his subjectivity is necessarily a bad thing. Winchester is not writing an authoritative text. Like Bill Bryson, he takes a subject he is interested in, learns about it, and shares what he learned, along with his reactions, with his readers. So take that as you will.
That’s not to say Pacific is a perfect book. It is long. It does jump ALL over the place. It is dense and can be slow going when it’s something you are not interested in. (I’m looking at you, deep-sea hydrothermal vents.) As engaging as much of Winchester’s writing is, he loves an exemplifying series and lists to a fault. And I say that as someone who loves lists, series, and long, convoluted series. It led to an occasionally disorienting reading experience at times. And honestly, I think it needs stronger editing. Because of its structure and length, I’m sure it was a challenge to edit, but there was sloppy proofreading throughout the book, and it detracted from the experience.
I don’t necessarily think Pacific is for everyone, but I think there is something in it to interest almost everyone. I struggled to push through the density at times, but I learned a lot, good and bad and everywhere along the spectrum. And I also feel like it is a beneficial, contextual read as we shift our focus more and more toward Asia and the world gets smaller and smaller. There are lessons to learn and mistakes to not repeat, and this book reminds us to think critically about the effects of our decisions.