Books about cities: 5 suggestions
The space inhabited by fictional characters
Reading a novel is the closest we can get to the power of teleportation: a fiction book can indeed bring you to some other place. Being it imaginary or realistic, in every good story the location is a narrative element of its own, in fact, the space inhabited by the characters tells us a lot about the events happening to them.
If you are passionate about people and their space, if you are a city lover, an urbanist, an architect, or simply, if you are up for a good novel, here are our 5 best suggestions.
1. Flatland. A romance of many dimensions, by Edwin Abbott (1882)
“a respectable working man with an angle or brain of 59°30’”
This book is a brilliant and unique merge of satire and geometry. The narrator, a Square, tells the story of its bi-dimensional world, with its inhabitants, history, customs, and religious beliefs. One day an unexpected figure, a Sphere, comes across Flatland announcing the Land of Three Dimensions. Its message won’t be very welcomed. Considering the time it came out, this book was an incredible forerunner of later theories about the relative perception of reality. Today, it still carries a very actual message that is the tragedy that comes with imposing a univocal truth and the incredible effort needed to change a mindset. Go to book
2. The invisible cities, by Italo Calvino (1972)
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
The explorer Marco Polo entertains his host, the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan, with fantastic stories of imaginaries cities. Fifty-five in total, all named after women and divided into thematic groups, each city is a kaleidoscope about the everyday life, the relations, dreams, and fears of collective living. The narratives are interspersed by the dialogues between Kahn and Polo, and it gradually becomes clear that with all these cities he is actually describing one in particular. Go to book
3. High-rise, James G. Ballard (1975)
“This was an environment built, not for man, but for man's absence.”
The luxurious and elitarian life in a modern tower block gradually descends to extreme chaos and its inhabitants come back to a primitive status. As a paradox, their technological isolation is broken only through violence. This book explores the ways in which modern social and built landscapes could alter human behavior. In a symbiosis of cause-effect, the space of the tower mirrors the decay of its inhabitants, among which there is also the architect of the building. Go to book
4. The Lonely City, Olivia Laing (2014)
“There is a gentrification that is happening to cities, and there is a gentrification that is happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenizing, whitening, deadening effect.”
More than a novel, The lonely city is a mix of fiction, memoir and art critique told through the life of iconic artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz. The author found herself in experiencing the loneliness the comes from living in a metropolis, in this case, New York City, and decided to use the medium of art to explore the city and her solitude. In a way, celebrating them both. Go to book
5. NW, Zadie Smith (2012)
“There is a connection between boredom and the desire for chaos. Despite many disguises and bluffs perhaps she had never stopped wanting chaos.”
A realistic/experimental novel, starting from its title. NW is the postcode area of North-West London, the setting of the novel. We follow the lives of four Londoners and dive into the spaces they inhabit, spaces of living, of working, of transition. The complexities of the characters reflect that of contemporary urban life: the city is brutal, beautiful and complicated and so are our lives. Go to book
Our fictional journey from very irrealistic (and yet, so relatable) to very realistic and contemporary locations is completed. Where would you like to go?
You can find all the books in their original language here.