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Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

A-1493Charles C. Mann, an American science journalist, is the author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2005), which helped debunk the myth that Christopher Columbus "discovered" the sparsely populated, environmentally pristine Americas. 1493 is a follow-up to that work.

The Topic: When Columbus set foot in the Americas, he initiated a biological, ecological, and economic exchange that set the course of human history and underpinned modern-day globalization. This "Columbian Exchange," Mann writes, "is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs." Yet far from beneficial to all cultures involved, it was a double-edged sword: the potato blight that originated in the Andes led to the Irish famine, but it saved millions of others elsewhere from starvation; "revolutionary" mosquitoes depopulated some parts of the New World, but they prevented further conquest by European armies and helped win American independence; and the slave trade altered the human gene pool and wreaked political havoc. 1493 covers five centuries and six continents to explore the Columbian Exchange's mixed legacy.
Knopf. 535 pages. $30.50. ISBN: 9780307265722

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"1493 is a bracingly persuasive counternarrative to the prevailing mythology about the historical significance of the ‘discovery' of America. ... 1493 deserves a prominent place among that very rare class of books that can make a difference in how we see the world, although it is neither a polemic nor a work of advocacy." John Strawn

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Specialists will find little surprising or new in the book--Mann is explicit about the fact that he is ‘translating' and synthesizing technical findings for a general audience--but seldom will one find a study of such importance so engaging and entertaining." Peter A. Coclanis

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Yet despite his scope, Mann remains grounded in fascinating details: why tobacco exhausted the soil; how fevers and blights attacked their victims; what made rubber stretchy; how maize cultivation in the highlands could ruin rice paddies in the lowlands. Such technical insights enhance a very human story, told in lively and accessible prose." Alex Nalbach

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"With admirable evenhandedness, [Mann] shows how the costs and benefits of globalization have always been inseparable. ... Most impressive of all, he manages to turn plants, germs, insects and excrement into the lead actors in his drama while still parading before us an unforgettable cast of human characters." Ian Morris

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Mann's book is jammed with facts and factoids, trivia and moments of great insight that take on power as they accumulate. ... [F]ascinating and complex, exemplary in its union of meaningful fact with good storytelling, [1493] ranges across continents and centuries to explain how the world we inhabit came to be." Gregory McNamee and Steven Levingston

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Again, [Mann] inserts himself into his narrative, roaming the world to dig tuckahoe roots in Virginia, find Columbus' landing place in the Caribbean and sail pirate-infested waters in the East China Sea. ... For all but the scientifically insatiable, reading 1493 may be like listening to that zealous science teacher so many of us had." Bruce Watson

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The year 1491 was an end point, and neatly delineates a book made of limited source material. But 1493 is a starting point that leaves Mann free to follow whatever threads he likes. The result is a book that cannot be comprehensive and doesn't try." Bruce Ramsey

Critical Summary

Readers everywhere are familiar with the cultural and economic aspects of globalization, but fewer understand its biological and ecological dimensions. Taking a chronological approach (1493–2011), 1493 combines impressive scholarship from history, biology, immunology, agronomy, genetics, and economics to show the effects of the Columbian Exchange, covering everything from malaria and white potatoes to tobacco, wheat, and maize. Though readers well-versed in science may appreciate some of Mann's discussions on, say, rubber more than others, the book's clear, thoughtful analysis of other topics (such as the slave trade) make the book of interest to general audiences. Above all, 1493 offers great insight into the making of the modern world. "Like 1491," notes the San Francisco Chronicle, "Mann's sequel will change worldviews."