Paris: Biography of a City


Read 17/10/2015-08/11/2015

Rating: 2.5 stars

If you’re after a book that gives minute detail about the changes to the boundaries, streets and buildings of Paris from Roman times to the late 20th century, Colin Jones’s Paris: Biography of a City is the book for you. If you’re looking for a book that marries geographical history with engaging social history so you can get under the skin of Paris and its inhabitants, you’ll be disappointed.

I was the latter. I also fell asleep far more often than a well written book should have prevented me doing.

Having read the description and a number of positive 5 star reviews of this book, I chose the book to develop my understanding of Paris as a city before my birthday trip in October 2015. I was expecting a mix of geographical history, economic history and social history, with more of a leaning towards the latter. What I got was mainly geographical history, an overview of Paris’s town planning over the millennia. For me it lacked the personal. There wasn’t enough time given to how changes in the physicality of the city affected the people who lived there. People seem incidental to the streets and buildings they interact with. The dry tone of the book sent me to sleep on more than one occasion. I read the Kindle version, and the structure of side panels didn’t work at all well. I can imagine that, with a physical book, flipping between the main narrative and the incidental asides would be easier. In the Kindle version, they interrupt the flow of the narrative – mainly because they’re plonked into the text and are more interesting, so that when the main narrative resumes, there is a moment of disorientation. I wish the whole book had been more on the model of the side panels. Having said that, the author has carried out extensive research, knows his subject and seems passionate about the geographical history of the city. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is undoubtedly a good choice. If, like me, you’re after more social history, you’ll probably wind up wishing you’d bought Alistair Horne’s book.

I got more out of the novel I bought in preparation for the trip.

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