Tart, well-researched, critical biography by Fernandez-Armesto (The Spanish Armada, 1988, etc.). There's not much affinity between writer and subject here. It's as if to Fernandez-Armesto the achievements of autodidact Columbus are simply not acceptable: ``...characteristic intellectual shortcomings of the self-educated...always made silly or risible errors.'' Columbus, the author tells us, was of ordinary lineage and could be coy about his background; sometimes he even lied. When the underqualified Columbus finally gets his backing, the author allows that he might be ``even perhaps charismatic.'' But Fernandez-Armesto never lets him off the hook, even at the end of his last voyage (and career and life): ``As always in adversity, the old syndrome flowed forth from Columbus's distraught brain....'' When Columbus gives credit to God for his learning, the statement is scrutinized suspiciously--even though it was an age when man gave God a lot of credit. Allowed to speak, Columbus's flowery phrases breathe life into the arid, quarrelsome text: ``Throughout this time I have seen and studied books of every sort- -geography, history, chronicles, philosophy and other arts--whereby our Lord opened my understanding with His manifest hand to the fact that it was practicable to sail from here to the Indies.'' What's missing here is any sense of Columbus as a complete man, a devout adventurer, the leader who still had time for books, who came out of a weaver's shop to teach himself navigation and astronomy. There's not much feeling for those wild times, either, when everyone misbehaved with such unacademic abandon. Lots of trees, no forest.