The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures, Stephen Johnson

Alpha, 2000, 452 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863231-1

I really do like the “for Dummies” and the “Complete Idiot’s” series of non-fiction books. Despite their title, they usually offer a clever introduction to a variety of subjects. A glance at their catalog is usually good for a giggle or two (Elvis for Dummies?!), but the truth is that there are few other better ways to get a quick primer on a given subject than to settle down with one of their books. The Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures is a primer on the exotic -but compelling!- field of, well, sunken treasures. This Guide offers a general primer on shipwrecks, underwater exploration, treasure-hunting and a few related subjects like pirates, nautical lore and salvage law. Most of the book is dedicated to a series of short primers on famous shipwrecks, from the antiquity to the cold war.

There are certainly a lot of good stories in this Guide. The most fascinating section of the book are undoubtedly parts 3 to 5, which describe the event leading up to fifteen famous shipwrecks, from the 1622 Spanish treasure fleet to the USS Scorpion, without forgetting such famous names as the Bounty, Lusitania, Andréa Doria and the unavoidable Titanic. Even if you think you know a lot about some of these stories (like many of us are likely to do after seeing TITANIC), there’s a lot of interesting information presented in an accessible fashion. Furthermore, each of those fifteen chapters also highlights when and how the shipwrecks were later found and salvaged by modern treasure-hunters. It usually makes for fascinating reading, especially if you absorb it in small doses, one shipwreck per evening.

Alas, the rest of the book isn’t as tightly focused. The first section of the guide, for instance, hops left and right, constantly repeating information on various subjects without a clear outline and a steady progression from one point to another. It really starts to grate after a few chapters, as the author sometimes refers to past pages, and just as often breathlessly re-introduces the same concept yet another time. The book’s overall organization is a murky mess: Part 6, which follows the “famous shipwreck” section, is about pirates and modern treasure-hunters; it’s unclear why it had to be segregated to the back of the book when it fits more naturally with a general introduction to the subject.

This lack of organization is most visible at the page-per-page level of the book. The sidebars, which fit so naturally well in other Complete Idiot’s Guide books, here seem excerpted almost verbatim from the main body of the text. The Complete Idiot’s Guide series also ends its chapters with a brief recap of the chapter’s most essential points. Not so here, where “The Least you Need to Know” endbar goes fishing for the most trivial points of the chapters and passes them along like essential facts. I stopped reading them half-way through.

All of the above leads me to wonder if Stephen Johnson’s manuscript was maybe written on spec as a stand-alone book, only to be retro-fitted later as part of the Complete Idiot’s Guide series. It would explain many of the highly annoying flaws of the book, especially when compared to the overall pleasant flow of the text. (The other reasonable explanation is that Johnson, a newspaper journalist, isn’t completely at-ease when structuring a longer work).

It’s a shame, really, when considering the intrinsic interest of such an unusual and fascinating subject. The movie TITANIC did a lot to revive interest in shipwrecks (let’s not fool ourselves; it probably sparked the writing of this book too), but it’s not the only wreck out there and there is a lot more to learn about the field than simply deep-water submarines expeditions. Pick up this Guide to Sunken Ships and Treasures to learn more… but prepare for some frustration along the way.

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