A History of Humankind’s Greatest Invention
by Ben Wilson
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 24 Sep 2020 | Archive Date 3 Oct 2020
Vintage, Jonathan Cape
A dazzling, globe-spanning history of humankind’s greatest invention: the city.
From its earliest incarnations 7,000 years ago to the megalopolises of today, the story of the city is the story of civilisation. Although cities have only ever been inhabited by a tiny minority of humanity, the heat they generate has sparked most of our political, social, commercial, scientific and artistic revolutions. It is these world-changing, epoch-defining moments that are the focus of Ben Wilson’s book, as he takes us on a thrilling global tour of the key metropolises of history, from Urk, Athens, Alexandria and Rome, to Baghdad, Lübeck and Venice, to Lisbon, Amsterdam, London, Paris, New York, LA, Shanghai and Lagos.
Managing and re-imagining the city is already one of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century. With over half the world’s population now living in cities, and with the cosmopolitanism of the major world metropolises under attack from revived nationalism and hostility to globalisation, it has never been more important to understand cities and the role they have played in making us who we are.
Rich with individual characters, scenes and snapshots of daily life, Metropolis combines scholarship and storytelling in a terrifically engaging, stylishly written history of the world through an urban lens.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 47 members
Interestingly, after completing Metropolis, I picked up Remote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, which talks-up home/remote working. Early on in that book, they predicted the working from home movement (greatly accelerated by Covid19) would result in the decline of cities - people would choose to live in cheaper, larger properties out of the city. Being a city person, I disagreed with this statement, and after reading Ben's Metropolis, I realised why.
It's easy to label cities as dirty, violent, over-priced, etc, but that's missing the point. They provide means of collaboration of ideas and resources, social opportunities and much more. Throughout history, cities like Uruk (six thousand years ago) have drawn people to them - to the point now where the majority of people live within them.
This well researched book does have it's flaws. There are a few odd transitions which seem shoe-horned in, and a few chapters really could've used a trim (repeated discussions on the benefits and troubles of walking in a city, too many film plots explained) but otherwise this is an excellent book that I can see myself dipping in and out of in the future.
A wide-ranging fascinating history of mankind's gravitation towards communal living and how that has driven development from pre-historic times. Humans have developed by standing on the shoulders of preceding generations as well as deriving inspiration from each other's experiences. Cities, typically built on major crossroads in world trade, helped language to develop to convey increasingly complex information and concepts and the proximity of people with diverse experiences and knowledge fuel technological and social development.
Not a quick read but a fascinating one!
This was a huge, wide ranging book, from the very first city mentioned in the epic of Gilgamesh, to modern Shanghai. It was full of fascinating facts, and I found it gave a really interesting new perspective on major historical events, like the rise of Portugal's empire through taking over Asian and African cities. I had to read it in a number of sittings to absorb all the information. I particularly enjoyed learning about how cities were founded and run before the European model that now predominates. I found the final chapters dragged a little, particularly about walking through Paris and the literature written about it, but this may have been as I was more familiar with this area. Generally, a great read from a fresh perspective.
Ben Wilson has written a book of astonishing scope and breadth. It has been been an eye opening read from start to finish. His title Metropolis is almost misleading. He takes a city - in the first instance the Mesopotamian city of Uruk dated 4000-1900 BC and gives us the world. He tells us how civilisation began and started to develop. He then moves forward to Harappa and Baylon 2000-539 bc; then Alexandria, Baghdad. Then over to Europe using Lubeck as the handle to talk of the rise of the western cities. He follows through the centuries picking others almost at random except Chicago and Manchester where the Industrial Revolution was particularly revolting in the city. Then Paris, new York and he ends in 2020 in Lagos - an already vast city that looks set to grow into the biggest megacity this planet has ever seen.
Overall I felt that the book did resonate with today as historically it shows that trade is the mover and shaker and shaper of all things - from the wealth of a city and therefore citizen; to philosophy and medicine - to culture as a whole. It was true then as it is now. Scarily it shows the cities that have risen, blossomed and then died to quiet backwaterism. At one stage he quotes the 14th century Italian merchant Francesco Datini 'in the Name of God and Profit'.
I've enjoyed reading this very much especially for the many little facts he's given us. The first coffee house in London was opened in 1654; fried fish was a staple of Jewish diet but it took one man in the East End to add chips and hence the national dish of Britain. However one thought will stay with me is the bath water in Roman baths must have been an awful swill of dirt, oil, sweat, muck and heavens knows what else - and how often was the water changed??? Yuck! marvellous book.
I am a city person, I love being in the centre of things, I love the opportunities for art, culture, business and society all mushing up against each other. I also fancy myself as a systems person, so seeing how complex organisations work, often due to design flaws or the inability to actually understand what is going on means I find the history and workings of city endlessly fascinating. So I came to this grand history of cities described hyperbolically as "A History Of Humankind's Greatest Invention" with a lot of interest but with quite a high bar for it to jump. And despite a few initial qualms, once I worked out how it was working, and that actually the writing was actually this good, it became compulsive.
My qualms? It is a history and it goes back as far as it can to Uruk in 4000BC. And when I got to the Uruk chapter my heart sank slightly because I feared it was going to be a strictly chronological history. That's an pretty common and obvious way of organising a history, particularly if you are looking at development, but cities aren't merely chronologically as much as subject to parallel evolution and planned (or not) to death. And whilst the book has a chronological throughline, I should not have worried. Instead he takes a number of example cities through time as jumping off points, often to discuss and go off on tangents through time. Its the kind of book where in the chapter ostensibly about Rome, he quotes Carlito's Way rather than Cicero. (The diversion is by way of the history and importance of public bathing, up to the surf and turf wars in New York over who got to use the swimming pools). We get Flaneurs, but we get more on NWA and how they were a product of a racist Los Angles designed to be that way. Wilson is awed by cities, about how they live, survive and often how they refuse to die, and he peppers the text with no end of well researched and rounded diversions like the ones above (my favourite being the oversaturation on ranch style bungalows in LA and most US cities being because the had the highest survivability ration in a nuclear war). The London chapter i subtitled The Sociable Metropolis (1666-1820) and is as much about coffee shops and how ideas and politics promulgate and prosper than London. You feel the righteous anger in the firebombing of Lubeck and the almost total destruction of Warsaw - and the wonder in these cities still actually existing, crawling from the ashes.
This is a great book to dip in and out of as well as a fascinating narrative read. And it is Utopian to a grand degree, the final chapter on Lagos describes a supermegalopolis in the making, with scant infrastructure and extreme poverty, but also as the most exciting cultural place on earth, He reclaims the suburbs (they are part of the urbs), and the last few chapters which talk about LA, Lagos and Tokyo, he sketches a broad theory of how successful cities thrive - put the development in the hands of the people, and never try to overplan. Always accept unintended consequences, and get the people invovled in solving their own problems. The history is interesting, and he certainly has little time for the moralising anti-city brigade, but its the present and his hints for a future in a majority urban world, with climate crisis and overpopulation at its heart which is fascinating and I got a genuine sense of excitement about how these futures will unfold. A terrific piece of work.
I don't think I have ever enjoyed a non fiction book more than Ben Wilson's Metropolis. It is an un-put-downable, lights still on until the early hours cornacopia of fascinating facts. This is a beautifully written summary of mankind's rise from the hovels and caves of his early beginnings to the soaring peaks of modern New York and Dubai. The author takes us from the beginnings of civilization in the fertile plains of the Euphrates river and the fabled early kingdoms of Arak, Adab and Kish then Babylon, Jerusalem and the Greek and Roman cities Athens, Troy, Rome and Constantinople to the modern day. These very names evoke the fascination of the story and as the narrative unfolds we are treated to regular nuggets of curious and wonderful facts. Did you know for example that New York's famous skyline came about because in 1916 the local administration were concerned that too little light was filtering down to street level and ordered that the roof line had to be staggered? Did you realize that the world leading power of the London financial markets was built in informal coffee shops in the 17th century? You may have thought that the Imperial Romans were a clean bunch because of their famous baths but possibly you might think again if you knew that they rarely changed the water! I absolutely loved this book and it will be my Christmas gift for my friends. Any chance of a discount for volume?!