Aili's Reviews > 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491 by Charles C. Mann
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Aug 27, 2007

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Read in August, 2007

So the major thing to note here is that this is a history of the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere... written by a feature journalist. It has a lot of straight history, but also a lot of information gleaned from non-standard or new techniques, such as archaeology, forensic science, and linguistics. Oh, and actually talking to folks who identify as indigenous -- who are, lots of them, still around.

A fair amount of the material was familiar to me from taking Colonial Latin America (taught by the awesome Prof. Cope) in college and from reading Guns, Germs, and Steel [and it's clear that the author totally hearts Jared Diamond]. But even with that background, there was enough new/interesting stuff to keep me entertained.

The downside is also the upside: as a journalist, the author is prone to kind of florid prose, which I found distracting but others (I hear) find exciting.

He also jumps around a lot -- it was unclear from the chapter titles what themes would be covered, or where, or who. The thread within a given chapter can jump from maps of the Amazon Basin to a Short History of the Fall of the Inkan [sic] Empire to How to Make Tortillas in Oaxaca, Mexico. The lack of overall structure meant that the author has to keep explicitly stating his extremely general goal: "I just wanna write about these folks because the current history paradigm totally fails to." Because otherwise you might forget it or wonder why he's spending 10 pages discussing a somewhat arbitrarily-chosen Mayan civil war in extreme detail.

His intention is laudable, but having such a general goal means that there's no clear build-up to a conclusion. So it's very easy to flip or page through this book, but it's kind of boring to read it straight through.
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message 1: by Clif (last edited Apr 30, 2010 06:46PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Clif To be fair to Mann, I think he's got two goals in mind in his writing style. He tells the detailed stories (such as those of the warring factions) in order to give life to the book; to take us back in time to "real" events. The second goal is to have a place-marker that will stick in the mind of the reader so that later on he can refer back to the name of a city, leader of of a battle, etc., and you and I will say, "oh yeah, I remember that", helping us to tie all the information together to create a concept of the civilization over time. This, it seems to me, is more likely to keep our minds active than a pure chronology.

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