Charles C. Mann, 2005
For ages, American schoolchildren have been taught that before the
arrival of Europeans, North and South America were sparsely inhabited
by uncivilized people who had little or no effect on the landscape.
1491 presents some recent research that indicates that, on the
contrary, the Western Hemisphere was densely populated and its residents
actively shaped their environment.
This book is packed with interesting information, but my goodness, what a
mess it is.
Recently I was looking at some student evaluations of various courses at
Berkeley, and one complained that "the class was mostly lecture-based" and
that the professor needed "to discover the wonders of Powerpoint." This
made me smirk a little bit because Back In My Day, I'd never even heard of
Powerpoint and certainly had never been in a class that used it, yet
somehow I managed to pull through. And of course, Powerpoint takes a lot
of criticism, not least because for a lot of people it is chiefly a vehicle
for providing garish backgrounds for bulleted lists of sentence fragments.
Edward Tufte has a whole litany of charges against the program, centering
largely on how inefficient it is as a means to deliver information compared
to handouts full of tables and graphs that can be perused at one's leisure,
but also touching on the problem of hierarchies of ideas. Powerpoint, Tufte
argues, turns presentations into linear marches through an outline.
However, I would argue that some kind of hierarchy of ideas, some kind of
outline, is precisely what 1491 needs. For most of the time I spent
reading the book I found myself thinking, "Wow, that's really interesting.
But, uh, why is he talking about that now? How is that a logical topic to
follow what he was talking about before? Where could he possibly be going
next?" Compare this to something like Collapse,
which takes the time to explain where the argument is going and why the
chapters are in such-and-such an order. I always kind of wince when I have
to tell my SAT students to make sure their essays have blatant signposting,
because it seems so juvenile — "say what you're going to say, then say
it, then say what you've said..." But after reading 1491 I'm going
to stop wincing, because Mann demonstrates that being too obvious about your
structure beats the alternative. Here are the topics 1491 covers, in
order by chapter:
- Bolivia and the assumption of progress
- New England tribes meet the Pilgrims
- the Incas meet the Spanish
- the debate over the peak native population of the Americas
- the debate over when the Americas were first populated
- the Incas, the Mexica, cotton, fish, and corn
- predecessors of the Incas and Mexica
- the Maya, Mississippian cultures, and more on the Maya
- the Columbian exchange and ecological release
- Iroquois politics
Buh? What kind of organization is that? It skips around in time, it skips
around in space, it skips back and forth between the general and specific,
and it doesn't add up to an argument except by random accretion. The lack of
organization makes Mann's predilection for misdirection especially problematic.
He launches into a long history of the conquest of the Inca Empire, for instance,
and then says, in effect, "Ha ha that is all lies." At one point he conducts a
long defense of slash-and-burn agriculture, which doesn't seem all that strange
given what a contrarian he is on other issues (suggesting that those who try to
prevent forest fires are under the spell of "Bambi syndrome")... only to turn
around later and attack slash-and-burn. Which is it? This is non-fiction —
it's not really the place for unreliable narrators. The next time I have to tell
my SAT kids that when they present the opposing side they must make it clear that
they're bringing it up in order to attack it, I will have 1491 in mind.
So, yeah, all in all, lots of interesting stuff, but stream-of-consciousness is
not a good approach to non-fiction. I'll give it an A for content, B–/C+
for language, and a charitable D– for organization.
One of the appendices defends the book's use of the word "Indians" by saying that
indigenous people generally hate the phrase "Native American" and use the word
"Indian" to refer to themselves. He says his rule of thumb is "call people by
the name they prefer." This sounds reasonable, but it doesn't work when the name
those people prefer is taken. The people of the Western Hemisphere got
called "Indians" because Columbus thought he was in India. But he was not,
and therefore they are not Indians, whether they like the name or not. If
they want to be called Japanese or Namibians or Swedes, sorry, but those names are
taken too. It is interesting how in his whole disquisition on the topic Mann
doesn't even address how actual Indians — as in, people FROM INDIA
— might feel about the subject.
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