Last year, we marked Columbus Day by sharing a list of modern immigrant fiction, tales of identity and immersion that, as Karen Kleckner Keefe noted, suggest that we’re still discovering America. The fact that Columbus has his own holiday at all remains controversial, but whether you wish he’d never set foot on San Salvador (or wherever he first landed) or feel his accomplishments are worth parading about, we can all use a refresher on the staggering scope of the changes wrought by Europeans’ arrival in the Americas.
I’ll be taking advantage of the long Columbus Day weekend (Chicago Public Schools observes the holiday) to visit Cahokia Mounds, an important pre-Columbian site in downstate Illinois. At its peak during the thirteenth century this large, Native American city was larger than Medieval London—and was undoubtedly a nicer place to live.
This year’s Columbus Day list is a short one, consisting of two books by the same author that do an excellent job of capturing the New World before and after the Italian explorer showed up and changed everything forever.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann
Drawing upon decades of recent research, science journalist Mann offers an audacious survey of pre-Columbian history. His fascinating narratives of Indian empires are interweaved with theories about their rise and fall that are still debated by archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, ecologists, and other specialists. Despite having to master an impressive breadth of material, Mann retains excellent clarity and judgment on a controversial topic, resulting in a compelling yet balanced introduction for general readers. (There’s a middle-grade version, too!)
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, by Charles C. Mann
Following the popular and critical success of his previous title, Mann surveys current scholarship on the ramifications of Columbus voyage. Without praising or vilifying the man in particular, he explains the complex exchanges—diseases, pests, plants, and people—that occurred once ships began to connect continents. The theme of globalization will interest not only history readers but anyone concerned about the environmental and social effects of contemporary world commerce.