1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
I bought this book, hoping to get up on the latest science of what went on here before Europeans showed up. I’d never read a book on the subject before, so my knowledge was restricted to the slim overview I got school Social Studies courses. All of it was boring. All of it completely uninteresting. Later, I learned a little from articles and movies and documentaries – none of it adding up to much. The only anthropology I read on any of the Americas was Ishi: Last of His Tribe, Yanomamo: The Fierce People and a few Marvin Harris books. But even then, I came away with a serious distaste for Central American culture. Harris painted a pretty grim picture of the first American’s cannibalism. And Chagnon, well, let’s just say I wasn’t keen on reading more about them after the violent picture of their culture he painted.
With 1491, I was hoping to have my preconceptions replaced by revelations and my misconceptions wiped out – and I was not disappointed. Trust me, you owe it to yourself to know what was here before. One fifth of the human population of the planet was wiped out when small pox and other diseases spread from the shores where Europeans landed. The pandemics travelled so quickly, most of the deaths occurred without the Americans even setting eyes on a European or knowing they had arrived. Unlike the tales told in incomplete history books and unlike the deliberate genocide pointed to by the survivors, epidemiologists now know that without even partial immunity to these new diseases, it was a disaster waiting to happen. That disaster could have happened when the Vikings landed. It could have happened with more people crossing the Pacific. And it could easily have happened the other way around, American diseases causing an unstoppable pandemic in Europe.
Often what European explorers encountered on their way across the Americas was a few bedraggled people who had managed to survive the collapse of their complex societies – societies whose members had developed specialized skills over thousands of years, and now, with all the tailors dead, the doctors dead, the farming experts dead, the engineers dead, there was no one left to man the machinery of the civilization, as all the supply chains, both of material goods and ideas, were forever broken. It is a tragedy that makes every epidemic, every genocide, every war and every conflict since the last ice age seem small and petty.
I hate those reviews that tell all the good stuff. Just let me say, read this book. I had no idea that the Americas were a far better place than Europe at the time Columbus set foot here. And I don’t mean some Eden of untouched resources. I mean the human world. Better farming practices, far better health, societies that built massive cities, temples and earthen structures because they wanted to, not because they had been enslaved and forced to.
Anyway, read this book. It is beautifully written and packed with eye-popping details of life here before Columbus.
Vicars of Christ, The Dark Side of the Papacy
by Peter De Rosa
If you care at all about history or wonder how in heck the Western world got from the Roman Empire to the modern day, you can’t afford to pass up this book. I can’t deny my curiosity came from the lurid side on buying this book. It is addressed to Catholic believers for the most part. But my hopes for the kind of dark-side-of-human-history peep show on par with Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars or Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors were pretty much fulfilled. I got my money’s worth.
Sadly the book is rambling and scatter-brained. When it is trying to be exhaustive, it turns out to be only tedious. The book came out in 1988 and the author spends way too much of the second half talking about John Paul II and the church’s modern troubles with abortion, contraception and celibacy. Still, if you can ignore the True Believer angle there is much ripe fruit in the first half of the book. Most of the popes in history were money-grubbing power-hungry assholes and the book details their racy exploits quite vividly.
What really shocked me was finding out how ingrained antisemitism is in the Catholic church, how institutionalized their hatred of the Jews. Since I haven’t read this sort of history before, I somehow was under the impression that the enemy during the Crusades was Islam. No, it was Jews and dissenting Christians. If the church could have wiped out all Jews forever, they would have thrown the biggest party in history. Thinking Hitler dreamt up his antisemitism would be a mistake. It never would have occurred to him if it weren’t for the thousands of years of history of the church openly, systematically persecuting Jews. The popes led the way and Hitler followed.
I have been a staunch atheist most of my life. I have always resented the attempted brainwashing I received in my youth by an aggressively Catholic father who knew no different than his white European family taught him. Any mention of the church has left a bitter taste in my mouth. But now… Well, let’s just say they are a very large criminal organization, bona fide members of the 1%. For fuck sakes, the very house that Pope Francis currently lives in at the Vatican had a torture chamber in the basement during the Inquisition – which lasted for eight hundred years. Eight hundred years his predecessors were not just OK with torturing and killing women and children in their fucking basement, they were really ticked off when they couldn’t do it anymore.
Despite its many faults, The Vicars of Christ is a great, even monumental book. I strongly recommend it – especially for those who still have a shred of respect for these misogynistic, antisemitic, self-serving killers in pointy hats.