A man with innumerable talents, including that of consummate storyteller, Simon Winchester takes on a massive subject: the Atlantic Ocean, a body of water so alive that it deserves a biography of its own, he says. Winchester graduated from Oxford University with a degree in geology, a field that has infused much of his writing. In ATLANTIC (HarperCollins, $27.99) he recounts the tectonic gymnastics that have allowed the ocean a lifetime so far of 200 million years—with only 170 million left to go. In this beguiling mix of hard science and personal discoveries, Winchester relates some of his own awesome Atlantic adventures, a few so high-risk that even he wouldn’t do them again, including one that led to his shooting and eating a polar bear to avoid starvation.
What survives from the past—what we see in textbooks and museums—are the monuments and artworks of an age. But how do we interpret these artifacts? And can we trust, say, images of battle scenes commissioned by the victors to accurately portray their subject? HOW TO READ WORLD HISTORY IN ART (Abrams, $35) explores the relationship between those who control the historical record and the masterworks used to pass down particular versions of events. The authors, Flavio Febbraro and Burkhard Schwetje, give a two-page spread to each of the scores of artworks they study; this includes a summary of the relevant historical event and close scrutiny of the piece’s significant details. The book considers the great figures of history, including Charlemagne and George Washington, and the great battles, but it also offers a look at everyday life during periods of upheaval, such as bubonic plague years, and turning points like the Industrial Revolution. From the Code of Hammurabi to the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, this volume makes a magnificent and masterful tour of unforgettable historical moments and the great works of art in their wake.
In this timely and outstanding work of scholarship, Margaret MacMillan, the prize-winning Oxford professor and author of Paris 1919 and Nixon and Mao, examines the many uses to which history is put in academic, national, and international debate. Dangerous Games (Modern Library, $22) warns us against the tendency to regard different situations as analogous; it’s reductive and misleading, for instance, to see today’s war in Iraq as simply another Vietnam. For those historians, generals, and statesmen who search for parallels, she cautions against the perils of erroneous, insufficient, and/or irrelevant information as well as oversimplification.