1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann
A fascinating chronicle of the "Columbian Exchange," which mixed old and new world elements to form today's integrated global culture, the "homogenocene."
People of European ancestry poured across the world after 1500, forming the majority in several continents and dominating everywhere. Historians traditionally credit Western superiority in organization and weaponry, but science journalist Mann (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, 2005) argues convincingly that biology, not technology, gave them the critical advantage. Most readers will be surprised by the author's discussion of the history of Jamestown, America's first permanent English colony. Settled largely by incompetent adventurers eager to duplicate the jackpot of gold that Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru, they failed, dithered and starved to death by the thousands until, after 10 years, the jackpot appeared: tobacco, the first global commodity craze. Silk and porcelain crazes quickly followed. Arriving with Columbus, malaria and yellow fever debilitated white settlers throughout America, but Africans had partial resistance, a major factor in encouraging the slave trade. Historians have focused on gold, but an avalanche of South American silver poured into China as well as Europe, facilitating international trade as well as inflation, instability, war and today's currency system. Potatoes and corn from America probably stabilized Europe by eliminating periodic famines. They did the opposite in China, encouraging a population explosion that cleared forests, leading to floods and vast environmental degradation.
Focusing on ecology and economics, Mann provides a spellbinding account of how an unplanned collision of unfamiliar animals, vegetables, minerals and diseases produced unforeseen wealth, misery, social upheaval and the modern world.
A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness by Nassir Ghaemi
Ghaemi (Psychology, Tufts Univ. Medical School; The Rise and Fall of the Biopsychosocial Model, 2009, etc.) insists that failed leaders are mentally healthy. The best crisis leaders, more or less, are crazy.
The author demonstrates his scary thesis by thumbnail psycho-biographies of successful troubled leaders and a few flops who were, apparently, quite normal. Ghaemi's standard diagnostic indicators include symptoms, genetic history, course of illness and treatment. Available medical history and mostly secondary sources serve as validators of mental illnesses in varying severity. General Sherman and Ted Turner, he finds, were hyper-creators. Churchill and Lincoln were depressive realists. Depressed empathy
characterized Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.FDR and JFK, both chronically ill, were resiliently manic. In hard times, good politics are bipartisan and great politicians are bipolar. The depressed see life realistically, and the deranged are creative. Though readers may question whether the truly normal can achieve leadership, George W. Bush, forexample,is a normal guy, writes the author in proof of his theory. Among the mentally healthy he places Richard Nixon, who failed in a crisis—one of his own making—because he saw the world clearly. For the most part, Ghaemi writes, Nazis, too, were normal folk. For his hypothesis to be taken seriously, the author was obliged to consider the quintessential psychopathic leader, Adolf Hitler, who was a charismatic leader who became crazy to excess. Ultimately, the author provides an unsatisfying diagnosis of the dictator, and he fails to examine, among others, Stalin, Hussein or bin Laden. A diseased mind, Ghaemi candidly admits, attracts stigma, but he insists that the essence of mental illness promotes crisis leadership.
A diverting, exceedingly provocative argument—sure to attract both skeptical and convinced attention.
Just My Type: A Book about Fonts by Simon Garfield
A thoroughly entertaining, well-informed tour of typefaces, some now 560 years old, some invented within just the last few years.
If you own a computer, chances are good that you have hundreds of fonts available on your machine. Unless you're a typophile, then the chances are equally good that you don't make full use of all those possibilities—or know why Minion is different from Garamond is different from Times New Roman. Enter Garfield, a genial Briton who confesses to "a soft spot for Requiem Fine Roman and HT Gelateria." Some fonts, by the author's account, are dear and necessary—the late-Renaissance inventions of Claude Garamond, for instance, which, adapted by the English compositor William Caslon, "would provide the letters for the American Declaration of Independence," or Sabon, "one of the most readable of all book fonts." Others are an offense to the eye, such as Comic Sans, which started life innocently enough but has been used so overly and wrongly as to constitute a typographic felony. (Garfield defends the font's designer, though, who also designed Trebuchet, "which is a nicely rounded semi-formal humanist font ideal for web design." The author traces the evolution of font families over the several technologies of typemaking and typesetting that have emerged in the last half-millennium, including some of the digital ones that are used today. He is just old enough, too, to pay homage to typography in quite another context, namely the "boastful B" and "dropped T" spelling out "The Beatles" on Ringo Starr's drum kit. He also offers pointers on what fonts work best for what uses, even if some of his profiles should remain lost forever: The world would be a better place without Souvenir Light and Cooper Black.
"When we choose a typeface," asks Garfield, "what are we really saying?" His book offers an informed and pleasing answer, and a lively companion to books such as Robert Bringhurst's essentialElements of Typographic Style(1992) and John Lewis'sclassic Typography: Design and Practice.