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I seem to be reading two books at once. I just wrote about Harold Bloom’s The Shadow of a Great Rock. No sooner had I ordered it, and while I awaited its delivery, I came upon the review eight days ago in the Sunday NYT of Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which was published three weeks ago. In one of those spontaneous moments that the Kindle makes possible, I bought and downloaded it.

Well, not quite. I looked around to see what I could learn about it online first, and was led to a brief note by Tyler Cowen on his blog Marginal Revolution back in May. Cowen wrote: “I am spellbound reading it, it will be one of the best books of this year, and, although I know this area somewhat, I am learning fascinating information on literally every page. Mann stresses how much it mattered to suddenly be living in the “Homogenocene,” where Asia, Europe, and the New World suddenly started becoming more alike. Mexico City had the world’s first Chinatown and was the first global city. The discussion of the importance of the potato, and in general New World agriculture, surpasses previous accounts and he explains the importance of knowing how to make chuño.”

After reading that, I bought the book.

In his NYT review, Ian Morris explains its premise.

1493” picks up where Mann’s best seller, “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” left off. In 1491, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were almost impassable barriers. America might as well have been on another planet from Europe and Asia. But Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean the following year changed everything. Plants, animals, microbes and cultures began washing around the world, taking tomatoes to Massachusetts, corn to the Philippines and slaves, markets and malaria almost everywhere. It was one world, ready or not.


[Mann suggests] that only by understanding what Crosby called “the Columbian Exchange” — the transfer of plants, animals, germs and people across continents over the last 500 years — can we make sense of contemporary globalization. The lesson of history, Mann argues, is that “from the outset globalization brought both enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains.”

With admirable evenhandedness, he shows how the costs and benefits of globalization have always been inseparable. We cannot have one without the other. Bringing the potato to Europe made it possible for the Irish famine to kill millions when the potatoes were stricken by blight, but it also kept other millions of half-starved peasants alive. Bringing malaria to the Americas depopulated some parts of the New World, but it also kept European armies out of other parts. Mann can even see the point of view of the chainsaw-­wielding loggers who deforested the Philippines so that Americans could have cheap furniture: “These agents of destruction were just putting food on the table.”


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. He makes even the most unpromising-­sounding subjects fascinating. I, for one, will never look at a piece of rubber in quite the same way now that I have been introduced to the debauched nouveaux riches of 19th-­century Brazil, guzzling Champagne from bathtubs and gunning one another down in the streets of Manaus.

I made my way through the Prologue and first chapter soon after downloading the book, but then The Shadow of a Great Rock arrived, waylaying me until this morning, when I picked it up again. So far so good. I don’t have much to add. Perhaps I will once I’m further along.

Categories: Books, History
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