Book of the week: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

Mann revisits Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and shows that we've greatly underestimated its effects.

(Knopf, $30.50)

Charles Mann’s new book “astonishes on every page,” said Margaret Quamme in the Columbus, Ohio, Dispatch. Revisiting the effects of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, Mann has taken a global turning point that most of us think we already understand and shown that we have grossly underestimated it. Europe’s early explorers didn’t just import a foreign culture, after all. They unleashed an exchange of plants, germs, insects, and people that transformed the very ecology of every continent on the globe. The idea isn’t new: Mann acknowledges that historian Alfred W. Crosby first detailed the effects of “the Columbian exchange” in 1973. But Mann already proved, with the important book 1491, that he’s a master synthesizer, said Crosby in The Wall Street Journal. This “muscular, densely documented” follow-up “moves at a gallop.”

Almost every reader “will find something that challenges his assumptions,” said Ian Morris in The New York Times. Not for long, it turns out, were Europeans the main players in the Western Hemisphere’s population upheaval. In part because Africans were genetically resistant to malaria, they became favored as slaves in the New World and greatly outnumbered Europeans here until the 19th century. Because disease wiped out about three quarters of the Americas’ indigenous populations, forests in North America grew unchecked and probably contributed to the “little ice age” of 1550 to 1750. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the movements of corn, potatoes, and earthworms. Mann’s argument is that 1492 marked the beginning of a grand homogenization of life on the planet, and he “makes even the most unpromising-sounding subjects fascinating.”

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The book’s 400 pages aren’t all easy reading, said Bruce Watson in the San Francisco Chronicle.1493 asks readers to absorb key concepts in biology, agronomy, epidemiology,” and various other disciplines before yielding its full array of rewards. Mann is “the zealous science teacher so many of us had”—by turns “fascinating and frustrating, charming and nerdy,” even when he’s roaming the world to pull a root out of Virginia’s soil or “sail pirate-infested waters in the East China Sea.” But while some readers may want to tune him out at times, none will be able to shake his main lesson: “Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of the New World,” he writes, “but its creation.”

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