Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Read the Beatles" edited by June Skinner Sawyers (2006)

So much has been said about the greatest band of the 20th Century, so much has been written, that you could spend a lifetime trying to take it all in. Fortunately, someone went through and complied the best parts of all those great sources and put them in one book.

When you were fifteen, your cousin, Bonnie gave you a birthday present you will never forget. She gave you just enough money to buy a CD (things we listened to music on before MP3s and and Spotify came along) but she also gave you strict instructions. The money was only to be used for one purpose, to buy The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bonnie knew what she was doing. Of course, you'd heard Beatles songs before, but never an entire album. It was extraordinary. You listened to it over and over and over again. What struck you, as a kid, was the realization that the album was telling a story. You weren't sure what that story was, and you were pretty sure the Beatles weren't sure either, but you knew it was there somewhere, hidden in the music. June Skinner Sawyers knew it as well, and she found other people who did too. Not just authors, critics, and musicians, but family members of the Beatles, their wives and their friends. This book is her attempt to compile the story that they all found in the music that was produced by those four fabulous young men in just seven astonishing years.

A friend of yours once told you that someone saying they loved the Beatles told her nothing about them. "It's like saying, 'I like primary colors.' No shit. We all do. Tell me what else you like." At first that idea made you mad because you thought she was trashing the greatest band of all time (there really is no argument there, no matter what anyone says), but then you realized that she was really saying, "We ALL love the Beatles. How can you not? It's where the rest of modern music started. Where you go from there in your musical taste tells me what you take away from their music. Are you an I Want to Hold Your Hand kind of girl? Or are you into odd Rocky Raccoon type stuff? Do you cry when you hear She's Leaving Home, or do you lean more towards Strawberry Fields Forever? All the genres of rock and roll and pop, all the sub-genres, they all stem from what these four kids from Liverpool were doing during the decade when the Western World was trying to tear itself apart. "Read the Beatles" helped you plot the course they took, musically and personally, from obscure punks to the most famous and influential humans on Earth.

The first essay in the book was so breathlessly reverent that it was almost off-putting, honestly. It was a fictionalized (and sanctimonious) description of the moment John and Paul first met at a church fair, but the next piece was from Cynthia Lennon. Her accounts of John's early college days were so charmingly casual that you knew the book was going to be all right. Some days, John Lennon's biggest concern was avoiding getting his ass kicked by young local thugs who were none too pleased at how much attention all the girls in town were suddenly giving the four boys who played at the Jacaranda coffee shop. "Read the Beatles" quotes more essays and excerpts to follow the boys as they cross the Channel to play for the sailors and hookers in Hamburg, Germany. This is where the four of them earned their chops. Drunken men would insist they play a samba or something with a flamenco feel. They had to learn a wide variety of music and they had to do it fast. They were living in obscurity, and their song selection was dictated by what drunks yelled at them through smoke and alcohol. When the boys returned to England, everything changed.

In December of 1960, they returned to their hometown and played a show at the Town Hall Ballroom. Before the announcer was even through introducing them, Paul started screaming the opening line to "Long Tall Sally." When the crowd of kids turned their heads to see who was making that incredible noise, when they all rushed the stage to get closer looks at the way the guitarists were stomping and thrashing around the stage, that was the moment Beatlemania was born. The crowd went nuts that night and every time the Beatles played thereafter. In February of '64, just three months after President Kennedy had been assassinated, they came to America.

Every reporter who saw a show during the Beatles tours of the US inevitably became more fascinated by the behavior of the kids in the crowd than that of the the kids on stage. Jewelry and jelly beans were heaped on the stage by adoring fans. The reaction was almost religious in its ecstasy. It transcended anything any celebrity had dealt with in the modern age. One of the authors in the book makes clear a truth that most Beatles haters forget, when John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he was saying it, not in a boasting way, but out of disgust for the culture that had made it true.

You often say that without context the history we tell each other is hollow, it is robbed of the real story. It never occurred to you that part of why the Beatles were so unbelievably popular when they came to the United States, was because the citizens here were looking for something to bring them out of their state of mourning. The last good drum rhythms they could remember was a funeral dirge for the young energetic president who had given many of them a hope they had never known before. These funny, vibrant musicians arrived at the perfect time to fill the holes in the hearts of America's youth. The essays and interviews from this era begin to ask an interesting question, were the Sixties a product of the Beatles, or were the Beatles a product of the Sixties? The answer, even according to the members of the band themselves, is always that they were a result of the times rather than the other way around. The Beatles were a singular product of a unique moment in time that can never be recreated. When John sang in "Norwegian Wood" about a woman who seduces a man, and in the morning it's the woman who has left, he wasn't creating a sexual revolution, he was simply reporting on it. All the sexual and revolutionary and creative energy of the era coalesced around the Beatles and they were swept up in it and lifted by it to heights no other musical group as ever, or will ever, reach.

One of the best pieces in the book is a review of Sgt. Pepper's in Esquire by Robert Christgau from 1967. In it he refers to the letters pouring into the New York Times defending the album from a scathing review by Richard Goldstein. Christgau notes that one fan vehemently defends the song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" even though it's pretty clearly a nonsense song added to the album purely for its vaudeville feel. Christgau observes that that is why the Beatles are so important. "A good Lennon-McCartney song," he writes, "Is sufficiently cryptic to speak to the needs of whoever listens." In 1967, a respected classical music critic for the Times noticed the presence of Aeolian cadences in Lennon's "It Won't Be Long." When he wrote this observation in his '67 review of Sgt. Pepper's, even the middle class began to view the Beatles with respect. Years later, a reporter from Playboy asked John Lennon if he had indeed put Aeolian cadences in the song. Lennon's answer was simple, "To this day, I don't have any idea what they are. They sound like exotic birds." We are the ones who place significance on the music, not the artists.

It is entirely possible that the Beatles aren't as great as we all think they are, but that makes no difference. They matter so much to human culture because we all say that they do. They are important because we decided that they are. Their music is genius, but we have all decided to make it a cultural touchstone. Any of us can quote a line from the Beatles and, like the works of Shakespeare, almost everyone we know will immediately be on the same page.

One of the great mysteries that has always dogged the Beatles (at least for you) is how they went from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Strawberry Fields Forever" in just four years. What could have inspired such a dizzying growth in musical maturity and innovation in such a short time? How did kids from Liverpool go from covering Elvis tunes to creating "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" just five years later? The excerpt from Geoffrey O'Brien's book ("Sonata for Jukebox") makes the observation that John, Paul, George and Ringo had gone from relatively inexperienced lives to being the most famous and adored people on Earth. As a consequence, they had to become insulated from the rest of the world. So they ended up having only one another, their talent, and their mutual passion for music to provide themselves any emotional outlet, any sense of fulfillment. Well, they had all that plus marijuana, alcohol, and LSD. They fed off one another as music's greatest echo chamber, learning from and challenging each other, exploring their art in ways no one had ever done before.

Each member of the band brought something different to the equation, but they ended up being so much more than their parts. Their curiosity, their humor, their honesty and their insatiable sense of hope still allow us all to embrace their music. About two years ago, when your oldest son started reading books on his own alone in his room, you decided to load almost every Beatles album into an iPod and play it in his room as he read. He still listens to them. His favorite album right now is Magical Mystery Tour.  You are convinced it might be one of the wisest decisions you ever made as a parent.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Revolution! The Russian Revolution" by Adrian Gilbert (1995)

So... Yeah. You checked this book out from the children's section of your local library and it was kind of awesome.

Your mom once told you that she loved it when news anchors had to break into children's programming to report on breaking news because then the anchors are forced to break down the news into information that is a bit more easily comprehensible. Speaking to kids forced the anchors to get to the point of the matter in ways that illuminated the subject in a more clear and succinct way. As usual, your mom was right. While in-depth, exhaustive analyses is essential for a deep understanding of a subject, sometimes the best way to be introduced to that same subject is through a simple explanation, maybe even one tailored for children.

You've always heard of the Russian Revolution. You've read lots of books about the Russian experience during WWII and the Cold War. You know who Lenin was and who Stalin was, and you've watched Dr. Zhivago. But you've never really understood what happened in Russia during the Revolution of 1917... or how... or why. So you read a 45 page book for children about it and now you do!

The Russian Revolution, like most events in history, was far more complicated than you thought. This book helped explain to you both how complicated it was and how you could make more sense of that complexity. Like many kid's books, it is filled with informative inserts and timelines that helped clarify the complicated and dizzying circumstances of one of the most influential events of the 20th Century.

By 1917, the Revolution had been on a sort of slow boil for over a decade. Wealth disparity, war, and oppression all played their parts in stirring up the population of the vast Russian nation. The Czar, Nicholas II, had bent to the will of the people and allowed the creation of a governing elected counsel called the Duma in 1905. He promptly continued as an absolute monarch and ignored the Duma as if it didn't even exist. Russia was becoming an industrialized nation and as the people moved to cities and within closer proximity with one another, radical anti-Czarist ideas were spreading easier throughout the Russian population.

The First World War was a catalyst for revolution in Russia, as it almost was in most other European nations as well. The poor leadership of the Russian military command resulted in millions of casualties and a deep humiliation for the Russian people. Demonstrations in the nation's cities were becoming more and more problematic and disruptive. Strikes and marches and protests were slowing down the production of the nation and interfering with the Czar's ability to make war. When the troops sent in to quell these rebellious demonstrations were order to fire on the civilian demonstrators they began to refuse their orders. More and more, the Russian Army was fighting for the people and against the government. On March 15, 1917, the last Csar of Russia abdicated his throne.

The Revolution had begun and a Provisional government was soon established. The Provisional Government vied for power with local elected governmental bodies called Soviets. Different factions within the government also vied for control. Right wing leaders wanted things left much as they had been, while left wing leaders wanted radical change. Chief among those changes was an end to the war. Germany leaped on this chance to close off their Eastern Front and sent the radical leftist Vladimir Lenin on an armored train from his exile in Switzerland into the heart of Russia. Lenin claimed control of the ultra left wing Bolshevik faction and set about working to overthrow the new Provisional Government.

Through his magnetic personality, his politically strategic genius, and his ruthless ability to use men for quick gain and then throw them away to prevent any challenges to his hold on power, Lenin soon had achieved his goal. The cast of characters is long and the names are familiar, but Lenin rode over them all. By November the Bolsheviks were in charge of most of Russia. Elections were held for a new representative government, but when they met in January of 1918, it was clear the Bolsheviks would be in the minority. Lenin closed the meeting and disbanded the Constituent Assembly. Never again would the Communists allow popular elections to decide the government of Russia.

In March, peace with Germany was declared, but almost immediately a civil war erupted. Years of conflict and starvation followed, with Lenin and his Red Army clinging to power while the people suffered the consequences of war and famine and instability. The Russian Civil War was characterized by factionalism as well as invasion from outside forces. Poland, Great Britain, France,  and the United Stated all sent soldiers to try and overthrow Lenin's rule. But the Red Army, led by the brilliant General Trotsky, was able to eventually defeat the White (anti-Communist) Russian armies.

No sooner had the Communists won the Civil War than more social uprisings began again. Betraying their revolutionary roots, the Bolshevik government of the newly named Soviet Union began brutal crackdowns on dissent. Lenin's death in '24 opened the doors for more internal struggles for control. Joseph Stalin eventually won those struggles, becoming the leader of the nation. He immediately began eliminating his rivals and creating the modern USSR. The Russian Revolution had finally come to and end.

The hardships of the Revolution were tempered by the building of a nation that was soon rivaling even Nazi Germany for primacy in Europe. The Revolution was supposed to spread into the capitalist nations of the West, but Stalin's focus on controlling his people kept Communism contained inside his own nation. World War II changed all that. Communism soon was gaining footholds in the under developed nations of the world and establishing the Cold War that dominated international politics for half a century.

If you have any more questions about the Revolution, you feel confident now that you can dive into more substantial books on the topic. Or you could always go back to the kid's section of your library and check this book out again. It was perfect for you.

On to the next book!

Friday, August 23, 2013

"Revolutionary Summer" by Joseph J. Ellis (2013)

Ellis is the guy who wrote "Founding Brothers." You loved that book (but sadly, read it before you started this blog, so you've probably forgotten most of it). It illuminated for you the ridiculousness of the idea that all of the founding fathers of the United States had some monolithic, single, agreed upon idea for how their new nation should be organized and how its government should work. You've actually recommended "Founding Brothers" to librarians who have thanked you afterwards (bragging rights!).

Speaking of librarians, you checked this book out from your local library which means you had to return it. That need to show off the books you've read on prominently placed shelves is apparently circumvented by the pride you feel in reading a good book from the library. But this one would sure have looked nice sitting in the Revolutionary Era section of your bookshelf. Plus is has deckled edges. By Gandalf's Beard, you love deckeld edges! They're so tactile and satisfying. They give their books a sense of importance, a weight that comes from an era where paper was torn by hand to be bound into a book rather than cut by some soulless machine. Every turn of the page lets your fingers feel like they are climbing the Matterhorn, exploring every ridge and crevasse. It's got to be the closest thing to reading Braille you will ever come across. It really hurt you to return this book to the library. Hey, wasn't the library a creation of Benjamin Franklin? That's pretty meta, reading a book featuring Franklin which you checked out from one of the institutions he himself created right? Does that really qualify as meta? Who knows... Wait...

There is supposed to be a book review here...

Focus, Sam!

In "Revolutionary Summer" Ellis makes the simple case that the few months between spring and fall of 1776 were the most important, formative, and perilous in American history. Others have made this claim as well, it is not unique. However, Ellis has a quality that cuts to the quick of the issues he chooses to illuminate, an insightfulness and a personability that makes his books highly readable. His strength is his ability to empathize with his subjects and infect his readers with that same connection. He makes history feel more immediate, more urgent.

Before he gets to the meat of his thesis, though, Ellis has to set the stage. For years before the fateful summer of '76, the American colonies have been chaffing at the increasingly tight rule of King George III in England.Taxes have been levied, protested and repealed. Tea has been tossed over the sides of merchant ships by the tons in Boston Harbor. Increasingly, Americans are realizing that their requests to be represented in their Parliament will not be granted. In response to even more taxation without representation, the thirteen colonies convene the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Skirmishes have been fought in the Massachusetts countryside between British regular soldiers and American militiamen, and the full-fledged Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston has resulted in an American retreat, but with looses for the British that are obviously unsustainable. George Washington has been placed in command of the new Continental Army and for nine months Washington with his rag tag army has besieged the city of Boston. In March of 1776, the General finally outmaneuvered his supposedly invincible foes, placing artillery on Dorchester Heights. The mighty British Empire has been forced to retreat from a force of barely trained militiamen without one shot having been fired. In triumph, Washington begins marching his army south and west towards New York where he correctly assumes the British will strike next.

The year before, the Continental Congress, at the urging of Pennsylvanian delegate John Dickinson, had requested that Parliament and King George come to their senses and allow for either more colonial autonomy or for representation in the government. Many loyalists believed this call for reconciliation would be enough to quell the rising voices calling for independence, for a revolution even. They were wrong. By spring of '76, the king has rebutted this call for reconciliation and declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion and he orders the creation of a massive army to cross the Atlantic and restore order. About the same time, the pamphlet "Common Sense" appears in cities throughout the Eastern Seaboard and sells 150,000 copies in just three months. It compels the people of the American colonies to begin to question, many of them for the first time, the very idea of monarchy itself. They are beginning to realize that without representation, they cannot consider themselves true citizens of any nation, let alone a tiny island, half a world away intent on ruling an entire continent of people but with no interest in hearing their voices. On May 12th, John Adams of Massachusetts, convinces the Continental Congress to adopt a resolution that all 13 colonies throw out their Constitutions written under the authority of the British Crown and each write their own new Constitutions as they see fit. Adams will later argue that this moment was the real Declaration of Independence.

And then the summer hits. Ellis makes the point that the events leading up to that fateful summer were the most decisive of the whole War for Independence. The flash in the pan rage, the vaunted "Spirit of '76" was already over. What had started as a surprisingly successful insurgency had now become a full scale war. While Washington's army was slowly evaporating on its march to New York (the citizen soldiers had to rush home for the harvest, you know) the greatest armada to ever cross the Atlantic Ocean was sailing to meet him. Those waters would not see so many ships gathered for one purpose until the American navy sailed in the opposite direction to help out her revolutionary sister France during the First World War a century and a half later. The popular uprising that had erupted early in the year now had to stiffen to the reality of creating and sustaining a government birthed in war while struggling to maintain its republican roots. A massive standing army was, after all, anathema to republican ideals. The consensus of dissolving ties with England quickly dissolved itself as the delegates to the Continental Congress became immersed in the revolutionary language they were throwing around. Questions abounded. Questions about what the idea of liberty truly meant in a land that enslaved millions and kept the vote from women and the poor. Most of those questions were tabled as the British invasion force appeared in Hudson Bay. It was clear that the King was no longer interested in compromise. In response to this aggression, Independence was now the policy of every colonial legislature.

Before joining the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin, the most famous and respected American on Earth, had been an advocate for reconciliation with the British Crown. He, like everyone else in America, had grown up thinking of himself as an Englishman. He was not interested in throwing off the rule of King George; he was merely advocating for a government that recognized the mutual consent of the governed. In early 1774, he was forced to sit silently in the House of Lords (colonists had no representation, remember?) and listen to himself be humiliated and pilloried for his views. This moment proved to be too exquisitely painful of an example of exactly what was the disagreement between the colonies and the crown for Franklin to keep his loyalist tendencies. He immediately changed his tune and became a steadfast proponent of American Independence.

Franklin was the perfect example of how much of an epiphany the Americans had had. The Revolution resulted in an entire people who had acquiesced for generations to the rule of a monarchy now espousing instead their God-given right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. This, a largely philosophical idea, soon spread Eastward from the colonies and took root in places like France and later in India, Ireland, and all of Latin America. Even more recently, this idea has been seen revolutionizing oppressed peoples in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria.

It is important to remember that, although they were inexorably tied together and most people think of them as the same thing, the War for Independence and the American Revolution were two different things. The War was a military engagement. It achieved independence from England through military means. The Revolution was an idea. It was a new idea that established, for the first time in history, the realization that all humans were inherently equal to one another, and the Revolution enshrined the belief that governments were only legitimate to the extent that they derived their power from the consent of those same equal humans whom they governed. In "Revolutionary Summer" Ellis recognizes that the Revolution most likely would have persisted even if the War for Independence had been lost. In fact he makes the point that the British General Howe recognized this earlier on than General Washington.

During the Battle of New York, Howe could have repeatedly used his superior numbers of troops and his dominance of the waters to cut off and annihilate Washington's army. In fact some of his generals urged him to do just that. But Howe was looking to defeat the American Revolution, not win the War for Independence. To Howe, it was more important to bring all of the colonists back to their senses and back under the control of the British Crown than it was to destroy any colonial armies. He believed that a few high profile victories by his gigantic army would remind the American population that the fight for Independence would exact too high a price for any silly intellectual Revolution. Every American should thank God that Howe was wrong. The premise of "Revolutionary Summer" is that it is entirely possible, even probable, that no British military victory could have ever quelled the Revolution. Once the American colonies (now States) had crossed that line, there was no going back. The genie was already out of the bottle. It was King George's acts of aggression, when faced with reconciliation, that had driven the colonies to sever their allegiance to the British Crown in the first place. Ellis makes the point that more aggression would have hardened every revolutionary heart on this side of the Atlantic even more. Had the British destroyed every army the former colonists could muster and hanged every patriot they could find, they would still never have been able to destroy the Revolution. To quote Princess Leia, "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin <General Howe>, the more star systems <colonists> will slip through your fingers."

General Washington, on the other hand was rash and overly aggressive in defending New York. He almost met with disaster for that rashness. Washington had failed in a commander's most sacred duty, to pick his battles well. He did not need to defend an indefensible city or risk his army for the sake of personal honor. He only needed to keep the hope of the Revolution alive. Washington's defeat (and miraculous retreat across the East River) lead to two major events. The first was the he would never again allow his army to be put in a position where it could be destroyed. Even though he was an inherently aggressive commander, he fought the rest of the War of Independence in a conservative, defensive style. His defeat in New York let him realize that all he had to do was not lose. The second event Washington's defeat inspired was a realization in the Continental Congress that more soldiers were needed to fight this war. Relying on state militias was no longer enough (in fact, Ellis spends considerable time giving the lie to the myth that the war was won by scrappy, well-armed militiamen rather than the regular army soldiers; indeed, the militias were often worse than unhelpful). But what was essential from a military point of view was a political impossibility. The individual state legislatures lacked the will to forcibly draft the 60,000 soldiers General Washington and the Continental Congress (which was acting as the de facto federal government) needed if they were to ever be capable of fighting and defeating the British. This problem, a weak central government's need to defer when states had all the power, would eventually lead to the collapse of the new American government under the Article of Confederation and the subsequent adoption of the US Constitution.

But, once again, this history book showed you how the immediacy of the moment is more illuminating than hindsight. Howe and Washington and the delegates to the Continental Congress were operating under the fog of war and neither knew what was coming next. 230 years or so provides you with the luxury of second-guessing and strategic criticism. These men were not so lucky. To quote from page 99:

"Any historical reconstruction of the crowded political agenda of the Continental Congress in midsummer 1776 inevitably imposes an ex post facto sense of coherence that the delegates at the time, doing their best to manage events that were coming at them from multiple angles and at very high velocity, did not share. They were trying to orchestrate a revolution, which almost by definition generated a sense of collective trauma that defied any semblance of coherence and control. If we wish to recover the psychological context of the major players in Philadelphia, we need to abandon our hindsight omniscience and capture their mentality as they negotiated the unknown."

And that is exactly why you read history books. That empathy, the act of seeing familiar events with new, fresh eyes, to abandon your knowledge of what is going to happen and try to walk alongside people long dead in order to explore how it must have felt to be in their shoes... that is the most thrilling part of reading history books. Authors like John J. Ellis and books like "Revolutionary Summer" not only make that act easier, they make it more exciting.

On to the next book!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"1491" by Charles C. Mann (2005)

In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But who was here before then? What were they doing? What did the Americas look like before the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria touched the shores of Hispaniola?

Mann has a very personable writing style. He talks about his travels a lot. He takes you along with him up in helicopters and prop planes that are scouring lush landscapes for signs of human habitation, for signs of civilization hidden right under our eyes. Right from the get go, Mann lets you know that he is going to try to enlighten you, he is going to try to change your mind. The pre-Columbian Americas were not how you thought they were, and they were not even how the most educated and studied anthropologists thought they were either. Mann breaks "1491" up into three parts based around his three central premises. The first is dedicated to evidence that the native populations of the American continents were far more numerous than we have always been taught; the second contends that those populations were far older and more sophisticated than previously believed; and the third argues that these peoples had a much greater impact on their environments than we thought.

But before he can even get to these three points Mann has to tackle a major problem with the way we have all come to think of native populations. He calls it 'Holmberg's Mistake.' In 1940, a student named Allen Holmberg lived among a native population in remote Bolivia. He found that the Siriono' people were as primitive as Western minds can imagine. They had no clothes, no shelters, no written language, no culture, not even any knowledge of how to make fire. He wrote a landmark book ("Nomads of the Longbow") about this primitive people whose entire history miraculously blossomed after encountering Western concepts of narrative history and clothing and fire. This wasn't true at all. The Siriono' people had numbered in the thousands before a series of epidemics reduced their numbers to fewer than 200. The local white cattle ranchers had also allied with the Bolivian Army and wiped out many of the natives who managed to survive the rampant disease. Holmberg hadn't found a culture preserved in time, he had found a population suffering from genocide and catastrophic disease outbreak. But Holmberg had concluded that this must be the way the Siriono' had always been. Mann compares his observations to that of a researcher who might have come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp and surmising that the Jewish people had always been naked and starving.

Holmberg's big mistake, and yours as well Mann argues, was that he conceived of native peoples as being somehow frozen in time. The way he found them must be the way that they had always been. Holmberg's mistake is the same mistake that Westerners have been making since 1492, and it is a mistake. The cultures that covered the America's before Columbus' arrival were not static, locked in some museum display case, immune to change for eons just awaiting the arrival of white folk. They were dynamic and fluid cultures that affected one another and which were in a constant state of change.

After opening your eyes to this problem, Mann is free to continue making his points. There were lots and lots of people here before Columbus' fateful voyage. In New England alone there were so many people that after John Smith's lieutenant kidnapped several members of the friendly Pautuxent Indian community and they became decidedly hostile to European visitors, the first few attempts to settle the area ended in failure. The settlers were being run off the newly "discovered" continent despite the fact that they were far better organized and much better supplied than the Pilgrims who came a few years later. In fact, in 1605, when Samuel Champlain visited the New England coast to try to establish a French base of operations, he simply could not find any shoreline that wasn't too crowded to land on. At night, the campfires lit the coast as far as the eye could see, and in the the mornings smoke from cooking fires obscured the land from sailors' sight. A short fifteen years later, those same shores were abandoned. Everyone was dead. The first fifty colonial settlements in New England were established in villages that had been emptied by catastrophic disease outbreaks. When Westerners arrived in the 'New World' it wasn't some vast pristine wilderness, it was a ghost town.

Centuries (or eons) of living closely with large domesticated animals (who carried disease) and waves of pandemics spread by contact with Eastern cultures over the Silk Road had inoculated Europeans from a myriad of infectious diseases. These diseases then destroyed untold millions of natives in the Americas. Because the various Indian cultures had all come from the same limited stock of people migrating from Siberia (via land routes or by boat) their lack of genetic diversity and similar mitochondrial DNA made them more vulnerable to new virulent pestilences. These pandemics spread out from any contact with Europeans like tsunamis, far outracing the pace that even the Spanish conquistadors could make. It is possible that these pandemics had a mortality rate of over 90%, and millions upon millions died without ever having seen a European face. Some estimates would rank this as the largest population loss in human history, even greater than the Black Death that killed half of everyone in Europe in 1346. But when Europeans roamed these newly emptied continents, they found few survivors and they assumed, as would Holmberg, that this was how these lands had always been. The New World was sparsely populated so it must have always been sparsely populated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Peru alone is as extraordinary a launching pad for cultures as the Fertile Crescent. In 1491 the Inca Empire was the largest on Earth. It spread over all variants of topography and across thousands of feet of altitude. It was interconnected with one unifying spoken and written language as well as 25,000 miles of roads (the greatest road network on the planet). One of the empire's rulers, named Thupa Inca, conquered as much geographic territory as Alexander the Great or Genghis Kahn. Thupa Inca's death set off a civil war whose complexity would shock George RR Martin himself. And then Francisco Pizarro enters the story. The Incan Empire was almost immediately doomed. Sadly, it had only lasted about one hundred years before the Spanish destroyed it. Internal strife and factionalism in the Empire helped the Spanish conquer, but again, disease was the real killer. Mann paraphrases Crosby in "The Colombian Exchange" (add that book to your 'to read' list too, man), "If Genghis Khan had arrived with the Black Death, as Pizarro did with smallpox, this book (and this blog) would not be written in any European language."

Mann then delves into how rich these lost cultures were, how sophisticated they might have been. Not just the Incas, but the Mexica (Aztecs) of the Triple Alliance in Mesoamerica as well. Yes, they engaged in human sacrifice, but the frequency of public deaths was less than that of England or France at the time (adjusting for relative population). So, which culture was the savage and which was the enlightened? The cutting short of the intellectual growth of the burgeoning philosophers in the New World is almost as tragic as the staggering loss of life.These people were quickly becoming as inspired and as influential as any of the ancient Greek or Chinese philosophers. It is truly a pity that minds like Jefferson's and Voltaire's, Locke's and Rousseau's were never allowed to meet with those of the Mexica or Inca schools of philosophy. Who knows where human thinking might be today if they had had that opportunity?

Peru and Mesoamerica join the Fertile Crescent as two of the world's only locations where governments sprang up independently. Everywhere else, they were copied or borrowed from neighbors. After much back and forth, a fragile consensus has emerged in the anthropological community that the Americas may have been peopled 20 or even 30,000 years ago. by contrast, western Europe's massive ice sheets kept them from being populated until about 18,000 years ago and England was empty until 12,500 years ago. The New World might be older than the Old World. In fact, it is entirely possible, according to Mann, that the first civilization on Earth arose on the shores of Peru, and it was not even an agricultural society (sort of). It was a fishing one. They did, however, develop extensive inland farming in order to grow the cotton needed to maintain all those nets and lines that a fishing lifestyle requires. Civilization followed by agriculture flips the anthropological paradigm on its head. It is supposed to be the other way around.

Moving deeper into the agricultural theme, Mann then makes the point that native cultures had a greater impact on the environment than we thought. Hell, maize was pretty much created, for lack of a better term, by those supposedly savage Mesoamericans. Maize cannot exist without humans harvesting and planting it and many humans could not exist without it. The development of this spectacular food (corn has long been your favorite food if you'll remember) allowed for the concurrent rise of multiple complex sister civilizations throughout Central and South America. The Olmecs, Maya, Toltecs, Totonacs, and Zapotecs all based their diets on maize. And when maize was introduced to the rest of the world, it took off like wildfire. In fact, oddly enough, maize is probably responsible for a huge boom in the population of Africa right about the time that Europeans were finding a devastated population in the Americas and wondering where they could find some nice cheap (or even free) labor. Therefore maize may have been responsible for the African slave trade. Regardless, the creation of this incredible food stands alone in the annals of human history. Never before or since have humans, even with our modern knowledge of genetic manipulation, created such a powerful and new organism.

The wild places of the Americas like the Great Plains and the rain forests of the Amazon are not examples of a biosphere in its pristine, untouched condition. They were created by civilizations that are now long gone. The endless expanse of trees covering the Amazon river basin isn't naturally occurring. It is a garden. One cultivated and planted by human beings. For thousands of years now those same humans have even created the very soils that are rich enough to sustain such a colossal area so diverse in life. So much for the idea that native people left no trace of their existence on the land by living with it in perfect harmony. They shaped it in powerful ways and used it to their own ends.

"1491" helped you be able to step back and see human cultural evolution, the rise and fall of civilizations, from a distance. It gave you a more global perspective and freed you from being nestled tight into a purely Western view. You are now better able to see the history of humanity from a planetary, almost alien view. If/when humans ever discover evidence of intelligent life on other worlds it is entirely possible that that alien life will be long gone. How would we view the evolution of the culture(s) on that planet? We certainly wouldn't try to interpret every miraculous cultural advancement through the experience of solely one culture on one random continent. But we do just that here on Earth. "1491" helped you come closer to breaking that habit.

The last chapter, called 'Coda,' makes the point that natives of the American Northeast may have even given the world the idea that true individual liberty was achievable, not in some Utopian world of fantasy or theory, but in this world. Right here and now. Be you a colonial British subject in 18th century America or 20th century India, a subjugated student in Beijing or an oppressed shop keeper in Cairo, do you not owe something to the people once considered savage and uncivilized? Their example was what has inspired generations of revolutions. "1491" closes with this line;

"...everywhere that liberty is cherished... people are children of the Haudenosauncee and their neighbors (in New England). Imagine... somehow meeting a member of (this tribe) from 1491. Is it too much to speculate that beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair, and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors?"

Well you certainly do now.

On to the next book!