If We Can't Explore Cities, We'll Read and Write About Them

An introduction to Books on Cities, my new Substack newsletter

There have surely been better times for city aficionados than the summer of 2020. I write you from Seoul, which as I observed in the New Yorker this past spring has so far managed without serious disruptions to its everyday life. (In fact I just got back from a haircut, albeit a masked one.) But then, for the past year I’d also been planning an urbanist road trip across the United States. Needless to say, I’ve postponed it — the result of a decision process greatly clarified when Detroit and New Orleans, its starting and ending points, became two of the country’s coronavirus hot spots.

The day when we can get out into our own cities and others besides will come again. Until then, there are plenty of books about cities to be read: those published over the past fifty, sixty, seventy years, of course — many of which even the most literate urbanists haven’t got around to — but also those being published even now, as we speak. Predictions of the pandemic-hastened “end of the city,” no matter how confidently made, haven’t yet put an end to what I’ll call the “city book.” This includes no few works of city criticism, a genre I made a start at defining last year in the Guardian and on which I certainly haven’t given up, as either a reader or a writer.

Hence my launch of Books on Cities, a newsletter in which I’ll write long-form essay-reviews of books new and old about cities the world over. Though I’ve been aware of certain writers making a go of it on Substack for quite some time, it didn’t cross my mind to try until the coherence of this particular idea, which struck me as a neat fit of substance and form (and I’m nothing if not a sucker for a neat fit of substance and form). Beginning Friday, September 18th, I’ll post one piece on one city book every two weeks. As seems to be standard operating procedure on Substack, some of them will be free for anyone to read, and others will be accessible to subscribers only.

You can click here to subscribe. Substack suggested I charge USD $7 per month, but I figured I’d crank that down to $5, with a $50 yearly option. The site also offered an option to let subscribers become “Founding Members,” each of whom can suggest a city book that I’ll then make the subject of one of these fortnightly dispatches. (At the moment the Founding Members option costs $150 for a yearly subscription, but you can pay more if you feel so inclined.) Both regular subscribers and Founding Members will be able to comment and join the conversation below each essay.

Which books on cities in particular will become the subjects of these essay-reviews? My own list of the volumes I want to read or re-read is practically limitless — and as I say, another seems to come out every few weeks — but to give you a sense of what to expect, here are a dozen of the (even wider variety of) titles I’ll cover in the fullness of time:

  • Metropolis: A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention by Ben Wilson

  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

  • Americans Against the City by Steven Conn

  • Downriver by Iain Sinclair

  • Mapping Tokyo in Fiction and Film by Barbara E. Thornbury

  • Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk

  • The Sprawl by Jason Diamond

  • Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City by Mark Kingwell

  • Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding... Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis by Sam Anderson

  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

  • Barcelona: The Great Enchantress by Robert Hughes

  • Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham (for its 50th anniversary, coming up next year)

Even when we could travel to and explore cities with relative ease, lo those many months ago, such books had the power to enrich our urban experiences. Now even those of us city aficionados who aren’t professional readers and writers have a reasonable excuse to spend some time with them. Though I do plan to continue Books on Cities apace even after the Time of the Coronavirus™, now seems like the ideal moment (if a highly unideal kind of ideal moment) to get started. If you’d like to join me, subscribe today — we’ve got some city reading to do.