Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review: Pacific

Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers
Simon Winchester
History, geography, science

It's a big subtitle for a big subject. Not just big as in having many aspects, but big as in physically enormous. Simon Winchester's opening chapter beautifully captures the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, as well as exploring the challenge of taking it on as a subject. He ends up, in fact, admitting defeat; the book is a series of snapshot chapters, picking up in 1950.

My first reaction was that it was pretty peculiar to read a history of the Pacific that only tangentially mentions the whole 1941-1945 unpleasantness. Then I started getting into this rather free-associative set of essays. And then, gradually, something more fundamental started nagging at me. The scattershot content of Pacific gives Simon Winchester the leeway to write about whatever aspects interest him. All of his interests are, in fact, interesting; but they're not equally intelligently treated.

Specifically, he has an attitude problem.

Simon Winchester lives in western Massachusetts. I know very well that there's a kind of attitudinal monoculture out there (it's something in the water). The monoculture simply takes it for granted that, of course, all Right-Thinking People will come to the book with the Correct and Enlightened Viewpoint. In the Correct and Enlightened Viewpoint, certain things are automatically and unthinkingly categorized, with no possibility of nuance:

  • War is Bad.
  • Colonialism is Bad.
  • Anything nuclear and/or industrial is Very Bad.
  • Ecology is Good.
  • Anything that can be described as indigenous, traditional, or native is Good.
  • Science is Good when it's happy peaceful enlightened science, but Bad when it's mean and imperialistic science.
And so on. It's less the attitudes that bother me per se than the meta-attitude: if you don't share Simon Winchester's views on Good and Bad, it seems to say, you have no business reading the book.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting. The sophomoric philosophizing occupies a minority of a very large and often very engaging work. I especially enjoyed the chapters on geology, meteorology, and surfing. I just wish that, if he wants to provide cultural commentary, Winchester would do so with the same thoughtful and perceptive reporting that he brings to more factual matters. 

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