For Columbus Day: more nuanced views of Columbus

Two new books offer perceptive takes on Christopher Columbus and the long-range impact of his famous discovery.

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    1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann Knopf Doubleday 560 pp
    Columbus: The Four Voyages by Laurence Bergreen Penguin Group 448 pp
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You might remember the saying from school. It goes something like this: "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And then the racist imperialist brought death and devastation to the New World he didn't even discover in the first place."

Oh, wait. That's not it. In fact, maybe we shouldn't consider Columbus to be a menace. After all, he was a great explorer. And there's the matter of the minor American holiday that gives some fortunate people a day off to celebrate him by hitting a sale. (Thanks from me and these jeans at 40 percent off!)

If you do give a thought to Columbus while browsing through clearance-price footwear, consider this: Through skill, stubbornness and good fortune, this extraordinarily complex man became one of the few people in history to ever change the course of life on the entire planet.

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And not just our lives but those of animals, germs and even plants, explaining why there's Italian pasta sauce, Belgian chocolate and Florida oranges.

Researchers believe that Columbus set off "nothing less than the forming of a new single world from the collision of… old worlds," writes Charles C. Mann in his new book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, a followup to his bestseller "1491."

Another newcomer to the shelves, Columbus: The Four Voyages, looks at the explorer's life on the seas, mostly in the little-remembered forgotten aftermath of his mammoth 1492 discovery. Both books are perceptive and readable, although "1493" is livelier and convincingly reveals how the uniting of two worlds affects each one of us today.

Columbus himself, however, is much more of a presence in "Four Voyages." To author Laurence Bergreen, who wrote previous books about Marco Polo and Magellan, Columbus is neither villain nor hero but an imperfect man of vast emotions and ambitions.

This will be an entirely unfamiliar Columbus to many readers. He's spiritual and mystical too, sometimes wandering into the land of the downright peculiar and even delusional. (He always thought he'd reached Asia, not a new hemisphere.) He's a terrible administrator prone to cruelty. And he finds loyalty hard to come by, whether it's from monarchs or sailors.

Bergreen's focus on detail robs his book of some of its storytelling power, but he provides great insight when he pulls back to take a wider view of a man whose "accomplishments seem anything but fore-ordained or clear-cut. An aura of chaos hovers over his entire life and adventures, against which he tries to impose his remarkably serene will."

His arrival in the New World certainly wasn't set in stone (or seawater). The land appeared just as mutiny threatened to turn him into a footnote and, perhaps, lead to a very different world that might not have ever included us.

But, of course, the mutiny didn't come. In "1493," Mann takes a global tour as he explores what the discovery wrought for the planet.

Look at what it meant for the world's people: "For millennia, almost all Europeans were found in Europe, few Africans existed outside Africa, and Asians lived, almost without exception, in Asia alone." Columbus ushered in "an unprecedented reshuffling" of the human race.

Mann has a remarkable ability to weave a narrative out of seemingly unconnected strands of history. Slaves, sugar, silver and silk are all threads in this literary quilt of a book, along with rubber ("black gold"), potatoes and tobacco.

The new world brought misery, of course, for millions of people across the globe, particularly Africans and natives across the Western Hemisphere. But the story is more complicated than one of a single man who ruined lives by turning the world into one. Plants and crops traveled the earth, revolutionizing agriculture and society itself. They often brought comfort and health even as global war and planet-hopping diseases did the opposite.

"Incredibly," Mann writes, "living standards doubled or tripled worldwide even as the planet's population climbed from fewer than 1 billion in 1700 to about 7 billion today."

As Bergreen puts it in "Four Voyages," Columbus didn't understand what he'd found that October day in 1492. It wasn't Asia. But he convinced others he'd done what he tried to do, and he paved the way for two worlds to become one. Humanity would share ideas, food, people, germs and much more.

The legacy of this sailor -- a man who was aggravated and aggravating and amazing -- lives on in each one of us, every day. In a way that was never possible before him, we are citizens of the world.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.

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