Monday, September 19, 2011

Thinking About Cities. . . .and Books about Cities

In contrast with my last post, the two books I'll briefly discuss here are much more subtantial. Both non-fiction, Stephen Scobie's The Measure of Paris and Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City speak to/about our relationship with cities, albeit in very different ways.

Scobie (who was on my original dissertation committee, although he had withdrawn by the time I defended) has written a marvellous book on my favourite city, weaving memories of many happy visits there with his wife, Maureen, over several decades, with a larger attention to the city's representation in literature. (Maureen's death casts an elegiac tone, but also a compelling personal narrative, over the work as a whole, with several chapters tracing Scobie's footsteps, alone and with Maureen in the past, through the streets of the city.) Scobie's interest in the figure of the flâneur guides a work of literary criticism that I feel sure could be enjoyed by academics and non-academics alike. If you love walking the streets of Paris, you will be fascinated by Scobie's tracing of the cartographic work done by memoirists and novelists like, using the City of Light as setting. To use a literary term, Scobie points out the recurrent trope by which a protagonist records her/his progress through the city through a precise itinerary. As he notes, quoting numerous passages from a wide range of authors (Nancy Huston, Mary Welsh Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Walter Benjamin, John Glassco), the precision of these itineraries with their litanies of street names allow authors to display their knowledge of Paris, their expertise in navigating it. Doing so, as he says, "they appeal to the reader's sense of complicity with this knowledge. If the reader knows Paris, then s/he can mentally follow all of these routes, picturing every street as it is named" (69-70).

Scobie's discussion of maps and of the phenomenon of the flâneur is scholarly, yes, but it's accessible to anyone motivated. He keeps the discussion grounded through the concrete materiality of his own walks through the streets of Paris, his visceral dislike of some buildings (Montmartre's Sacre Coeur, particularly, for the distasteful political history it represents and its derivative and overblown architecture), the poignant memories of  specific sites associated with his recently deceased wife. He lays his own "long poem of walking" (to use the Michel De Certeau phrase that Scobie quotes) over a network of literary mappings of Paris, framing his literary criticism within a personal, sometimes even emotional, narrative that never compromises analysis with sentiment, but is moving, engaging, instructive, and revelatory. And it was particularly enjoyable to read this book within a few weeks of seeing Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris: both book and film address "the whole discursive trope," Scobie says, "that I would here like to sum up as "Paris perdu" (Paris lost)" (3). Allen makes the point playfully through Owen Wilson's character's longing for the Paris of Hemingway, his muse's longing for the Golden Age that preceded that. Scobie makes his point more rigorously, pulling out quotation after quotation from writers through the centuries decrying the destruction of the city, its deterioration from the beautiful city of their memory.

Kingwell's book mentions Paris as well -- its pissoirs serve to illustrate a discussion of how cities deal with ordure. And while I'm obviously being playful in offering that example, it also serves to illustrate Kingwell's grounding of his reveries, his philosophical meditations in the concrete and the everyday. The book moves adroitly between actual cities, sewers and all, and ideal or imaginary cities. Above all, it's concerned with a very large project, considering the relationship between individuals and communities -- how does a city shape its citizens, and vice versa. What public spaces exist in a city and how do they allow for citizens to gather, to question, to inform, to protest, to build? And what about private spaces? Thresholds between public and private, inside and outside, safe and unsafe, clean and dirty. . . .how does contemporary architecture contribute to the determination of these thresholds?
Concrete Reveries was chosen as a Globe and Mail 2010 Best Book; I readily endorse this choice and would recommend this book to anyone who's interested in cities and in our responsibilities as citizens.  


  1. Both books sound really interesting but the first one especially so, given our upcoming plans.

    Is it one of those books you can't fully enjoy unless you've read all of the literary references?

  2. I enjoyed it completely, even though I certainly hadn't read all the literary references (I've since ordered one of the books, though, so it's inspiring). And you will know many of them, at least generally -- Stein/Toklas, Hemingway, most eminently.
    I'd love to hear what you think if you go ahead and read it.