The Year’s 10 Best Book – Number Three

My third book is Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

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One doesn’t come across books that exhibit such extraordinary learning very often, and yet Mann, in the 535 pages he takes to tell his story, wears his deep erudition with uncommon grace. That’s because he is an unusually good storyteller, and as with all the books on this list, a fine writer.

At the simplest level, this is a book about the virtual recreation of Pangaea, a reference to the supercontinent that existed before the Americas split from the African landmass.

Christopher Columbus, through his trans-Atlantic voyages, is of course the agent who initiates the great reconnection of the continents. And we are all superficially familiar with the ecological consequences that flowed from this, i.e. the introduction of unfamiliar plants, animals and diseases from one locale to another, as well as the mass movement of peoples.

Mann takes his research so far beyond the superficial that he will have you reconsidering your understanding of globalization, along with whole chapters of history and of how regions of the world have related to each other over the last 500 years. Almost literally, nowhere is left untouched, from Ming Empire China, Tibet and Japan, to the Central Asian Khanates, to kingdoms like Songhai, Kongo and Mutapa in Africa, to the Native peoples of both North and South America.

One could give highlights with a book like this, but the problem would be where to begin and to end. The influence of malaria on the drawing of the Mason Dixon Line? The intricacies of African-Native American relations in the ‘New World’? A The possible Chinese origins of the game of golf? The history of global commodity crazes – first tobacco, then silk, then ceramics? The birth of the world’s first polyglot, world-encompassing metropolises, Mexico City (where Chinese immigrants drove down the cost of haircuts, pushing Spanish barbers out of business)? The role of sweet potatoes and corn in dynastic collapse in China?

Whether through direct argumentation or implicitly, historians have long held that the triumph of Europeans and of their civilization was due to their inherent superiority vis a vis Asians, Africans, and Americans. Mann’s ideas, which build on the theories of Alfred Crosby, hold that Europe triumphed largely out of a kind of ecological imperialism; in other words through advantages gained through the swapping and transplantation of organisms from one part of the world to another.

One would do better to listen to author’s fascinating interview on Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, which is what led me to the book.

http://www.npr.org/2011/08/08/138924127/in-1493-columbus-shaped-a-world-to-be

The New York Times review: http://nyti.ms/pLsitm 

My previous recommendations are:

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White, by Daniel J. Sharfstein

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and The Origins of AIDS, by Jacques Pepin

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