Book review: ‘The Ocean at Home’ by Bernd Brunner

Who knew that the little, algae-lined glass jar on your child’s dresser, the one that contains a yellowy-orange fish named Penny, is an important cultural object?

Bernd Brunner does, but that’s not surprising. The Berlin-based author has devoted his other books — on the moon and bears in the woods — to things that are easily taken for granted and overlooked.

And now, with “The Ocean at Home” he turns to the common aquarium and finds an electrifying nexus of human obsessions — with cabinets and curiosities, a passion for exploration and scientific discovery and an abiding fear of (and love for) the ocean.

His book begins, as his others do, in myth and ends in fact.


Once upon a time, he writes, humanity viewed the ocean as “a cursed, dark world where terrifying monsters lurked, devouring anything in sight.” It was an ominous vision that gripped the Victorian imagination — a far cry from the ancient Greek notion of the ocean as an immense world-river named for Oceanus, the Titan, and populated by a trident-toting Poseidon and schools of mermaids. To illustrate this darker view, the author includes spectacular images of French mariners, in 1861, battling a giant squid, its long tentacles dangling into the darkness below.

Today, our fear remains, but it’s a different kind of fear: The worry isn’t about menacing monsters, it’s about what’s happening to all of those precious ecosystems because of humanity’s recklessness.

Between these fears, Brunner traces how people were so fascinated by their glimpses of what the ocean contained — thanks to diving bells and what was dredged up as transatlantic cables were being laid — that they wanted to capture its essence in miniature.

With the merging of fads — for cabinets of wonder and pet fish — soon the “aqua vivarium” was born. (British scientist Philip Henry Gosse, Brunner notes, squeezed that phrase to give us “aquarium” — a “vivarium,” by the way, is a tank for reptiles.)


The earliest aquariums were leaky; oxygenating the water was hard to do, resulting in enough dead fish to rival Seattle’s Pike Place market. But after the problems were solved, the interest among private owners of aquariums gave way to an even larger public competition among various museums to create the largest, most impressive aquariums around.

Even P.T. Barnum got into the act, presenting aquariums of fish along with what he billed as a “real mermaid” that, as Brunner explains, was actually “the upper body of a stuffed ape with the tail of a fish.” Some exhibitions even arranged aquariums in a circle, like a panorama, striving to give spectators a feeling that they were in the water themselves. It was, Brunner writes, “a new kind of theatre.”

Today, aquariums have grown so large that, as you observe the fish, you can walk through glass tunnels that seemingly take you into their world. Brunner dislikes these, just as he does the notion of aquariums in general: He says they accomplish nothing except the imprisonment of fish and undersea plants. He brings this book, which offers readers another display of his trademark thoughtfulness, to a close by suggesting that we need to pay better attention to what aquariums imitate — the actual realms of Oceanus and Poseidon.

“The effort to create an artificial ocean doesn’t really get us anywhere,” he writes. “We should focus instead on making the oceans, these gigantic ecosystems, a safe place. Saving life in the oceans is really the challenge for humanity.”


The Ocean At Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium

Bernd Brunner

Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press: 168 pp., $29 paper