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
  • Amazonia
  • 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.

Return to the Calendar page!