Thursday, June 21, 2012

1493 by Charles C Mann ****

Over the last quarter of a century, there has been a trend among historians and history writers to move away from power and politics in favor of economics, environment and everyday people. Part of this has been the effort for history to be more inclusive (versus just old white guys), but part has also been a demand on the part of the readers for a more human story.

I trace this back to the serious historical project that started with History of Private Life, Volume I (1987) and continuing with several volumes on private transactions that were preserved in the historical record ... archeology, court cases, wills, etc. This opened up everyday life as a subject for serious study, but did not really have the human element to entice the general public.

However Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (1995) had a more human focus and a clearly inclusive point of view. This is a book that can and should be read by everyone covering the twin topics or feminism and technology. It also set the precedent for histories cover broad expanses of time.

This was followed by Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (2005) which covered all history from the point of view of environment and ecology. Also a book that every educated person should have on their must read list. The subtext in this one is that race and culture means nothing compared to local environment and natural resources. This ties in nicely with 1493 which posits that since Columbus there are no local environments or natural resources.

This year we have two new additions to this genre: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Again we have a complete history of the world; this time the focus is on economics - especially money. This book is more specialized and probably mostly interested to those who have taken more than two Economics courses.

Thus we come to1493 - an economic and environmental history of the last 500 years. This book tends to be a collection of long essays on different topics (silver, tobacco, rubber, African settlements in the Americas, early trade between China and Manila, etc.) There is a unifying thread about how the world has become homogenized by international commerce. The overall effect is still a collection of essays, some very interesting and others not.

If you enjoy your history without power and politics and with inclusion of women and minorities, any of these will make for fine reading.

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