'There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea,' wrote Joseph Conrad. 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 coast, and people inhabit and engage with the sea in a variety of ways. The Sea explores the diversity of seas themselves, maritime technologies (especially the practice of navigation), and different cultures surrounding the sea. Seafarers have characteristic social and technical practices, as well as having distinctive language and customs. Many cultures have created a society of the sea, which is usually all-male, often cosmopolitan and always hierarchical. 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.
Ships are also deployed in symbolic contexts on land, from ship burials to ecclesiastical and public architecture. The two realms - land and sea - are never completely separate. Casting a wide net, The Sea uses histories, maritime archaeology, anthropology, art history, biography and literature to provide an innovative and experiential account of the waters that surround us.