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For Columbus Day: more nuanced views of Columbus

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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.

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