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Staff Picks: Charles C. Mann’s 1493

Cover artI selected Charles C. Mann‘s (Twitter linked because no website is available) 1493: Uncovering the World New World Columbus Created as an audiobook commuting read. A patron recommended the book to me at my last library job. We would often swap non-fiction recommendations because few others at the library read the genre. Even fewer read it almost exclusively, joyfully checking footnotes and references. Research is a passion of mine, and when I heard that there was a 400-plus page book complete with maps, bibliographic references, and index, I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed.

1493 is described by the publisher as “the best-selling study of the pre-Columbian Americas––a deeply engaging new history that explores the most momentous biological event since the death of the dinosaurs. More than 200 million years ago, geological forces split apart the continents. Isolated from each other, the two halves of the world developed totally different suites of plants and animals. Columbus’s voyages brought them back together––and marked the beginning of an extraordinary exchange of flora and fauna between Eurasia and the Americas. As Charles Mann shows, this global ecological tumult––the “Columbian Exchange”––underlies much of subsequent human history. Presenting the latest generation of research by scientists, Mann shows how the creation of this worldwide network of exchange fostered the rise of Europe, devastated imperial China, convulsed Africa, and for two centuries made Manila and Mexico City––where Asia, Europe, and the new frontier of the Americas dynamically interacted––the center of the world. In 1493, Charles Mann gives us an eye-opening scientific interpretation of our past, unequaled in its authority and fascination.”

When I began listening to the book, I decided that the narrator was reading too quickly for me to truly appreciate every word. My solution was to listen at 75% speed. I then proceeded to re-listen almost continuously for a year. (I checked my checkout receipts.) The Wall Street Journal observed “…1493 runs to more than 400 pages, but it moves at a gallop…” As I listened to Mann’s 1493 I continued to expect that the book would end at the next chapter. Surely there was not sufficient archival research or academia for a book to continue with this much detail. Continue it did, however, criss-crossing the globe showing connections between silver mining in the “New World” and China, to cite one example. While some go to fiction for literary escapism, I prefer exquisitely researched non-fiction. If Mann’s 1493 were a movie, it would need the budget of a blockbuster summer superhero smash hit to manage the locations, cast, set design, and sheer production value. It would also need an art-house studio’s attention to detail and vision. Mann’s 1493 is (logically) preceded by 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, which I have yet to read; I am keeping it for a rainy day.