Pacific – Book Review
Author: Simon Winchester
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, 195 Broadway, NY, NY
Copyright: 2015, ISBN: 0062315410
Cover: Gregg Kulick, Getty Images
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, July 24, 2016
Summary: Extraordinary little book (492 pages) that is not what is expected. An innovative approach to exploring the history of East and Southeast Asia. Focus on the sixty four million square miles of water, forty-six percent of water covering the earth.
We read books to learn something new. Knowing what we don’t already know is an attitude, not a condition.
The enjoyment of reading and weaving through the labyrinth of old and new vistas of thought is when a novel idea pops up unexpectedly. PACIFIC is one of those reads. You discover the Pacific Ocean. You discover the people who ushered the Pacific Ocean into the commercial and political considerations of Europe and America. Since Magellan the Pacific region has been on a steady upward spiral in its importance to the 18th century industrial revolution. The region is reaching a zenith in the era of the electronic digital revolution. Comparative to the twelfth century monasteries of Ireland, the populations of Asia are a potential culture changing force in the world. To boot, it is also an enormous market place. This is the backdrop for the history Winchester presents in PACIFIC.
He starts with a flight from Honolulu International Airport. Echos of a Pacific Ocean travelog tour that he pulls off rather expertly. The first stop is the Republic of the Marshall Islands, on the Kwajalein atoll. The Kwajalein atoll contains an army base where it is forbidden to disembark from the plane without permission form authorities in Honolulu. This atoll raises many intriguing associations. Among those associations are callers to C-SPAN who are fixated on complaints about U. S. Foreign aide. We discover in PACIFIC that the U. S. government makes yearly payments to the Republic of the Marshall Islands for use of the Kwajalein atoll. An interesting tidbit of knowledge.
According to Winchester, the Marshall Islands government receives something on the order of $18 million a year for a lease on the Kwajalein military base. The lease expires in 2066. Meanwhile, Winchester points out, the inhabitants of some of the Marshal Islands live in adjunct poverty. Where does all the money go? Well, “local kings and tribal chiefs” are involved. It is very illuminating.
We also get the sordid history of the Bikini atoll. As Winchester points out, the sorry history of the Kwajalein islanders and the “misappropriation of funds” which should go to improving their dislocated lives “pales” in comparison to the Bikinians and their homeland. Operations Crossroads, the first of the 1,032 atomic bomb tests conducted by the United States, effectively wiped Bikni off the proverbial face of the earth.
Aside from the Marshal Islands, the author resurrects a few additional irritants for the national conscience. He tops this off with a fact: the Pacific is the “weather maker for the world.” This chapter, ECHOES OF DISTANT THUNDER (Chapter 6) is the most interesting and informative in the entire book. While most of us have heard of El Niño, the Southern Oscillation may not be as familiar. The author does an excellent job of explaining ENSO, the acronym for the two weather phenomenon.
No tour of the Pacific region would be complete without a discussion of the minimization of electronics marketed to the world from Japan. In chapter 2, Winchester relates the relatively unknown story of how the transistor radio arrived in Canada and America from Japan. Specifically, he relates the history of Masarua Ibuka, one of the cofounders of the Sony Corporation. Aside from the rather unique story of where the name “Sony” originated, the history also reveals how transistor radios gain notoriety in America as a result of a robbery at an import-export company.
While nearly every detour Winchester makes in this travelog of the Pacific is interesting and informative, not every descriptive vignette is equal in significance. In“The Ecstasies of Wave Riding” (Chapter 3), we get twenty pages detailing the history of wave surfing. Informative if you wonder where the movie Gidget got its rationale for existence. The rift on Thor Heyerdahl, the Kon-Tiki and whether the Pacific islands were settled by South American boatmen or peoples from Asia is informatively resolved later. In the Epilogue: The Call of the Running Tide Winchester brings the surfing and travel rehash into an informative and thought provoking perspective.
PACIFIC seamlessly combines history, informative entertainment and historical perspective. It is a good book as a foundation on getting acquainted with the Pacific region.