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Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Sea

A Cultural History

Distributed for Reaktion Books

The Sea

A Cultural History

“There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea,” wrote Joseph Conrad. And there is certainly nothing more integral to the development of the modern world. In The Sea: A Cultural History, John Mack considers those great expanses that both unite and divide us, and the ways in which human beings interact because of the sea, from navigation to colonization to trade. Much of the world’s population lives on or near the cost, and as Mack explains, in a variety of ways, people actually inhabit the sea.

The Sea looks at the characteristics of different seas and oceans and investigates how the sea is conceptualized in various cultures. Mack explores the diversity of maritime technologies, especially the practice of navigation and the creation of a society of the sea, which in many cultures is all-male, often cosmopolitan, and always hierarchical. He describes the cultures and the social and technical practices characteristic of seafarers, as well as their distinctive language and customs. As he shows, the separation of sea and land is evident in the use of different vocabularies on land and on sea for the same things, the change in a mariner’s behavior when on land, and in the liminal status of points uniting the two realms, like beaches and ports. Mack also explains how ships are deployed in symbolic contexts on land in ecclesiastical and public architecture. Yet despite their differences, the two realms are always in dialogue in symbolic and economic terms.

Casting a wide net, The Sea uses histories, maritime archaeology, biography, art history, and literature to provide an innovative and experiential account of the waters that define our worldly existence.

272 pages | 20 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2011

History: Environmental History

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“This is the book that I have been waiting for—an anthropologist’s exploration of man’s engagement with the sea. In this brilliant analysis John Mack shows us that innate inquisitiveness has driven humans to challenge the sea creating one of the great dynamics energizing the human story. The Sea is essential reading for all with an interest in the remarkable story of humankind.”—Barry Cunliffe

Barry Cunliffe

"’I am a part of the sea and the sea is part of me,’ muses a Torres Straits elder, and John Mack brings readers to just such recognition of their own places in the world. In his able hands, seas become places and not merely The Great Between. They have their own histories, and demand sophisticated technologies of exploration, exploitation, and intellectual fathoming. Through many years of museum scholarship, Mack has perfected a grand, sweeping vision matched by delight in deepest detail, and here he tells compelling stories about ’ships as societies,’ ’sea gypsies,’ and the hundred named ’seamarks’ in open water known to residents of Mabuiag Island. Welcome aboard!"– Allen F. Roberts, University of California, Los Angeles


Allen F. Roberts

“An inventive look at the oceans and their influence — as barriers, as sources of commerce, life and cultural inspiration — on human civilization and the relations among nations.”

Los Angeles Times

 “John Mack’s fascinating The Sea: A Cultural History brings an anthropologist’s intellect to our engagement with the sea.”

Condé Nast Traveller

“Mack’s dry wonderment about the watery part of the globe smacks of learned curiosity of the eighteenth-century naturalist, enthralled by his subject; but unlike his twenty-first-century counterparts, Mack is too rigorous a thinker to universalize his curiosity ad absurdum . . . his teasing out of how the sea is viewed in literature and the arts, from the prints of Hokusai to the writings of Jonathan Raban, are the finest points of this book.”

The New Republic

“A comprehensive survey of the ways in which human societies have interacted with the sea, that vast expanse which has both united and divided the human race . . . I was intrigued by the chapter dealing with navigation and I learned so much from it about the fascinating history of the art and science of guiding a ship across the sea . . . I defy any reader not to find this book interesting and informative.”

Canberra Times

“John Mack, has looked at the sea through the prisms of culture, literature, art and anthropology . . . This is a wonderfully erudite study of the artistic and mythological influences of the sea, with references ranging from the usual suspects Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, J.M.W. Turner to such "unseaworthy" writers as diverse as Victor Hugo, Bruce Chatwin and Dr Samuel Johnson.”

Sydney Morning Herald

“This is a deeply learned book, looking at the oceans and the way sailors interact with them . . . adds another dimension to the history of humanity on a part of the planet easily ignored.”

The Australian

“The book is truly intelligent and international in its scope and a thorough engagement with it would benefit any serious scholar of the maritime world.”

Sea History Magazine

Table of Contents


1. Different Seas?
2. Concepts of the Sea
3. Navigation and the Arts of Performance
4. Ships as Societies
5. Beaches
6. The Sea on the Land

Photo Acknowledgements

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