‘To understand the ocean, to glimpse its meaning is, in other words, to understand ourselves, and by extension our place in the larger order of things.’ So muses James Bradley in the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Ocean, an anthology edited by Bradley and published late last year. Gathering classic writing about the waters by the likes of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, the collection also has a decidedly antipodean flavour, with pieces from Tim Winton, Judith Beveridge and Nam Le also figuring in its bulk.

We spoke with James Bradley about the process of editing the anthology, the endless allure of the ocean and journeys of discovery.

There are so many possible starting points for reading about the ocean. Where did you begin – with any particular pieces from your personal reading?

That’s not an easy question to answer, both because I’ve been reading about the ocean for years, and because this book is actually an offshoot of another, larger project about the Pacific Ocean I’ve been working on for some years (and which may or may not ever see the light of day).

But I suppose the short answer is probably that even from the beginning I knew there were a handful of writers I thought were non-negotiable, and whose presence helped shape the collection as a whole. Some of these are obvious: you couldn’t do a collection of this sort without Melville, or Coleridge, or Rachel Carson. But some are possibly less obvious, and are personal favourites of mine, such as Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Shackleton and Tom Farber.

Were any of the pieces you chose recent discoveries?

One of the real joys of working on a book like this is encountering writers and writing you might not otherwise come across, so while I certainly began with a pretty long longlist of candidates I already knew, I spent a lot of time reading things I wasn’t familiar with beforehand.

Some of those things were genuinely exciting. I only came to Daniel Duane’s fabulous book about surfing quite late in the piece, for instance. But in a way the two really big discoveries for me were Deborah Cramer and William Langewiesche.

Langewiesche’s piece, taken from his book about global shipping, The Outlaw Sea, is a harrowing account of the sinking of an oil tanker off Spain in 2001, but it’s also a chilling reminder of the manner in which the rich nations have largely abdicated their responsibilities for the oceans, leaving them to cargo ships under flags of convenience and manned by sailors from the third world, pirates, and the fragile craft of refugees, and of our obliviousness to the dangers faced by these people (I suspect most people would be staggered to learn that on average two large ships go missing somewhere in the world once a week).

But in a way it’s the story behind the Cramer I find more interesting. One of the things I wanted the collection to do was force readers to come to grips with the scale of the destruction we are wreaking on the ocean. But as I read my way through the subject I was struck by how little good, lyric writing there is on the subject. That’s not to say there’s not good writing about overfishing or climate change in a marine context – Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Darkening Sea’ should be required reading for every politician who thinks we have time to delay action on climate change – but what I wanted was the marine equivalent of Barry Lopez writing about climate change, and the more I read the harder that seemed to be to find.

In the end it was Jennifer Ackerman, whose book about the marine life of the Massachusetts seashore, Notes from the Shore, is also extracted in the anthology, who suggested Deborah Cramer’s brilliant book about the Atlantic, Great Water. But the difficulty of finding good writing about the subject seemed to me to say something about people’s obliviousness to the sheer scale of the problem, and to the difficulty of making them understand.

The book illuminates many aspects of the ocean and humanity’s relationship to it, sampling older works alongside newer ones; poetry sitting alongside fiction and historical account. Can you describe how you selected these pieces – the ‘right’ excerpt from novels, the ‘right’ poem?

I always think that editing is, in some important ways, a lot like writing: your job is less to impose order than to let the material find its own shape, and in the case of The Penguin Book of the Ocean that’s doubly true. Early on some people suggested I should try and delineate broad themes and group pieces together, or arrange them chronologically, but that always seemed to run counter to my sense of the ocean as something mutable, and unbounded. So I tried to treat the process of selection and arrangement as organically as possible, a little like making a poem out of found objects.

You’ve spoken of your desire to curate the book in order to show the Australian experience of the ocean, and the book contains predominantly Anglophone writing. Did you decide on this focus early on?

The decision to restrict the book to writing in English was as much about self-preservation as anything: the sheer amount of material in English would take many lifetimes to read, even before you start adding in writing in French, or German, or Japanese, to say nothing of the stories of Polynesian or Native American or Asian cultures. And as always with these sorts of questions, deciding to include work in other languages creates all sorts of problems to do with accessibility and interpretation and translation, all of which I was keen to avoid.

It’s probably also worth pointing out that the book isn’t actually entirely Anglophone, though that’s not on purpose. The two exceptions are Jacques Cousteau and Thor Heyerdahl. In Cousteau’s case I had an excuse, since The Silent World was actually written in English, but in the case of Heyerdahl it was just editorial sloppiness: The Voyage of the Kon-Tiki was so much a part of my childhood that it was only at a quite late stage that it occurred to me it wasn’t originally in English, and by the time it did the piece was so enmeshed with the whole I couldn’t bear to take it out.

Building an anthology is an immensely personal endeavour, expressive of its time and context. There are of course several anthologies of the sea. Did you look to any of these while shaping The Penguin Book of the Ocean?

For such an important subject there are surprisingly few anthologies focussed on the ocean. The most famous is almost certainly Jonathan Raban’s magnificent Oxford Book of the Sea, which was published in 1992, and which is probably still the most comprehensive collection of writing in English on the subject, but there are others, such as the Everyman collection of poems about the sea and John Coote’s rather differently conceived Faber Book of the Sea.

Inevitably there’s crossover between my collection and the three books listed above, though there’s actually less than you might think (of the 45 writers in The Penguin Book of the Ocean only 15 also appear in The Oxford Book of the Sea, and of that 15 only seven are represented by the same work or selection).

But in a way the most important thing these earlier collections did was show me what I didn’t want The Book of the Ocean to be. I love Raban’s collection, but it’s a book that despite its claims to the contrary really does set out to be comprehensive, something that is made very clear by the decision to arrange the material chronologically.

I took the opposite tack. Right from the outset I wanted to put together a collection that spoke not just to my own love of the ocean, but one designed to be read as a whole, rather than a selection of pieces. Just as importantly I wanted to create a collection that spoke to an Australian experience of the ocean, which seems to me to be inextricably linked to the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the immense expanse of the Southern Ocean, rather than the northern tradition anthologists such as Raban and Coote inhabit.

That’s one of the reasons the book is arranged as it is, rather than chronologically or thematically: the pieces are designed to speak to each other, and to change as you read, and new voices speak across them. But it’s also the reason it has the shape it does, beginning with Rachel Carson’s luminous account of the creation of the oceans and striking outwards, into discover and destruction and wonder, before it loops back to Deborah Cramer’s piece about the ocean and climate change and the beautiful coda from David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter at the end.

One of the great themes of this book is discovery, and the adventure that often accompanies it. Pieces like William Beebe’s tale of descending into the water in a bathysphere and Ernest Shackleton’s century-old account of an Antarctic journey really stir the imagination. Why do you think these types of stories affect us?

I’m not sure it’s necessarily the stories that affect us: certainly there are many accounts of discovery that lie dead upon the page. What matters is the capacity of great writers to show us the discoveries as they experienced them, and to allow us to share in those moments of possibility when the world is transformed by something new. That’s something that’s very definitely there in Beebe’s description of his journey down in the bathysphere, but it’s equally present in Darwin’s joyous descriptions in The Voyage of the Beagle, or Cousteau’s descriptions of the world beneath the waves in The Silent World.

While researching and selecting pieces for the anthology, you must have surveyed examples of writing about the ocean from decades, even centuries ago. Were there any time periods that particularly interested you? Did you notice a change in how people wrote about the ocean over time?

There’s little doubt people’s attitudes to the ocean have changed over time, and that’s reflected in the way it’s described and celebrated. As Jonathan Raban points out, for the Elizabethans it was mostly understood as a barrier, something to be crossed or endured, rather than a thing worthy of interest in itself. Indeed you could probably argue that our contemporary desire to imagine the ocean in quasi-mystical terms is a function both of the lingering power of Romanticism and the decreasing need to deal with the ocean on its own terms: certainly in the decades since air travel became common, and fishing was industrialised, people in Western cultures have been largely immune to the violence and capriciousness of the ocean.

But I suspect the writing I love the most is that of the nineteenth century, and of Americans such as Melville, Dana, Thoreau and du Maury, all of which are shot through not just with the Biblical roll and thunder of so much American prose of the period, but a desire for the transcendent which I can’t help but respond to. After that it’s the writing of the twentieth century, in particular the nature writing of Carson and others, with its attention to the real, and, inevitably, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.

There’s a narrative to The Penguin Book of the Ocean: how humankind has turned our will and mind towards such a beast of nature. The first piece is Rachel Carson’s beautiful writing about the ocean’s origins, and the collection closes with a scene from David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter in which a woman watches a surfer on the waves. What aspects of our relationship with the water do you find most intriguing?

There’s a wonderful piece in the collection from Thomas Farber’s book, On Water, which talks about the way water and the imagination are deeply, and inextricably connected, and pointing out just how deeply the liquid permeates our imagining of our inner lives. Obviously that’s fascinating, and I find it difficult not to wonder whether it has something to do with our origins along the lakes and rivers of the Rift Valley in Africa, but it’s certainly not accidental that Eden is described as the source of the four rivers: water, creativity, creation, all are deeply interconnected.

But in a way the thing I’m most interested in is the way we think of sleep, and dreams in liquid terms. It’s always difficult to unpick the cultural from the biological, but the association is so deep, and so powerful, it’s difficult not to wonder whether its origins are neurological rather than historical.

You’ve said that your first novel, Wrack, began to take shape when you envisaged people searching for a shipwreck. How did you engage with the idea of the ocean then, and has it changed with the anthology?

I’m not sure my actual, day-to-day relationship with the ocean has changed all that much: I still find great solace in it and its presence, and find it difficult to imagine life without it. But if the anthology has done anything it’s made me even more keenly aware of the need for people to understand the impact climate change and overfishing is having on the ocean, and the implications of those changes not just for us, but for the planet as a whole.