Skip to content

Turning the dial on the kaleidoscope

July 6, 2012

I recently read 1491 by Charles Mann and have been browsing through the author’s interaction with reviewers on the Amazon forum for his book. It’s fascinating and deals with many questions I had. I haven’t used this resource much in the past, but will try to remember to check into these forums more in future. Here is one comment that provides a great metaphor for this book,

I have few criticisms to pass on to you, but I wanted to tell you (in case you check back in here) that I just finished the book and have been telling everyone I know to read it. I think you have admirably presented all sides of some of the more controversial material, and you’ve synthesized the specialist research and literature in a very readable fashion. I am a teacher, and I sometimes use the metaphor of a tube kaleidescope with my students, telling them to not get stuck in looking at a set of data only one way, but to turn the dial on the kaleidescope to see a completely different set of possiblities. That is the effect your book had on me, and I thank you for writing it. My only possible complaint is that it’s not a few hundred pages longer to go into more detail on the U.S. Southwest Indian cultures, the Pacific Northwest, and the puzzle of original immigrations to the hemisphere. But perhaps that’s for another book.

It’s important to read books that turn the kaleidoscope, shift us out of our presuppositions, and offer a new perspective. We don’t have to swallow every detail uncritically, but a book like this points to information that the lay person is not usually exposed to. I was familiar with some of the material, but it was certainly worth reading. Mann’s thesis is that pre-Columbian America was a) more populated that we used to think (this changed about 30-40 years ago, I believe, so not that relevant), b) possibly populated 30,000 years ago, and not 12,000 years ago, c) was more technologically advanced that we previously believed, and d) inhabitants altered their ecosystems in significant ways, both for better and worse.

I am having some technical difficulty accessing as I am constantly being redirected to On the former there are over 300 reviews and on the latter 11. The author forum is also on

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2012 8:07 am

    The kaleidoscope is a wonderful metaphor for epistemology. You remind me of rhetorician Jacqueline Jones Royster’s use of the metaphor. She’s an African American feminist scholar whose essay, “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own,” argues for her own agency, as a subject, when studying the histories and/or the rhetorics of African Americans and particularly of African American women. White men who observe black women and make studied pronouncements about them, for example, yield only one perspective, and perhaps a tired and not very interesting perspective at that. At any rate, Royster writes:

    “Using subject position as a terministic screen in cross-boundary discourse permits analysis to operate kaleidoscopically, thereby permitting interpretation to be richly informed by the converging of dialectical perspectives.”

    She’s rightly arguing at least for dialogue, not just for some would-be objective monologue, about who African American women are. I think her approach t 1491 by Charles Mann, but you and the one you quote here make me want to now! (And if anyone wants to read Royster’s essay, somebody posted it here: )

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    July 7, 2012 1:07 pm

    I think anyone who associates with native Americans ought to read this book. Of course, I mean everyone should read it. Some of this is now taught in elementary social studies, from time to time, depending on the teacher, but we can all do with a reminder.

    It is also about environmental issues, questioning the notion that the Americas were in some way untouched wilderness in ways that the rest of the world was not. I have spent a bit of time rambling around the Yucatan, and the extent of still unexplored ruins is amazing.

  3. July 8, 2012 3:27 pm

    I have read this book, and its companion book 1493. I’m so glad you brought it to the attention of our blog’s readers.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    July 8, 2012 11:54 pm

    Thanks! On a different topic, I also read 1421 by Menzies. What did you think of that??

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: