Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography.

NY: Doubleday, 2000.

I’m not a big fan of huge cities, generally speaking, but I make an exception for London. I’ve visited there enough times, and for long enough stays, that I know my way around and I’ve spend many enthralled hours soaking up the history and presence of the capital of the English-speaking world — which it still is, regardless of what New Yorkers and Washingtonians like to think.

The publishers of this fat volume would like you to believe it’s the first and last source you should turn to for anything about the Metropolis, which simply isn’t true (and can’t be), but it’s a great place to spend some time. The author’s goal isn’t to write a methodical history but to provide you with a very large collection of fascinating historical commentary, on any subject that happens to interest him pertaining to London. (One suspects that Ackroyd could turn out half a dozen similar volumes and still not run out of things to say about London.) His approach is mostly topical, not chronological, and the chapters are mostly quite brief, which makes this an excellent book for intermittent browsing. There’s a very good chapter on London Wall (which I have traced the path of, from gate to gate), a chapter on the monasteries within the city (good background for a reader of C. J. Sansom’s historical mystery novels), a chapter on the city’s problematical attitude toward law enforcement over the centuries, a chapter on the many efforts to accurately map the city, a chapter on London’s numerous residential squares and how they developed as proto-suburbs, a chapter on the “lost” rivers of London, and on and on. Open the volume at random and start reading and when next you look at the clock you’ll find another hour fled. It’s that sort of book and the experience is very enjoyable as well as instructive. Ackroyd has a good ear and a knack for sucking the reader into his episodic narrative. No, this isn’t everything you will ever need to know about London, but it’s a very nice place to start.

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Published in: on 7 November 2011 at 6:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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