People often ask me how they can follow my career path into urbanism writing. I generally discourage that. But for those who are interested, it involves reading – lots and lots and reading. And not just on urbanism but not a wide range of topics. I can only make many of the connections I do because I’m tapped in a wide of range of things, most of which are like the parts of the iceberg underwater you never see.
As it happens, some folks also ask me what they should read or what I read.
One thing of course is to sign up for my exclusive monthly newsletter, where I include my hand-selected list of some of the best links I read that month.
One periodical that most people don’t read but should is the London Review of Books. Virtually all newspapers and periodicals are fungible at some level. They cover the same stories with the same slants and frames. But the London Review of Books is different.
The LRB does review books, but is unlike a typical book review. They often get the best or one of the best people in the world on the subject at hand to write the review. This sometimes backfires because of a de facto rivalry with the book author. But generally it works great. They also provide such in-depth summaries of the books in question that your rarely need to actually read them, non-fiction at least. This is important because realistically nobody can come close to reading all the books out there.
They also have longform essays on a wide range of other topics that bring perspectives you are unlikely to get elsewhere. Some of their articles are directly relevant to urbanism, such as this James Meek piece about a Cadbury factory that relocated from England to Poland.
The online version is subscriber only, but a number of articles are generally available for free. I want to share a selection of these free pieces from the current issue to give you a flavor of what you’ll get.
Malise Ruthven takes a look inside Saudi Arabia, its royal family, and its wealth.
The faith tradition that holds the Saudi system together – for now – is Wahhabi Islam, the iconoclastic creed of the 18th-century Islamic reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, whose pact with the Al Saud family led to the creation of the modern kingdom in 1932. Al-Wahhab’s stormtroopers, the Ikhwan, enabled Ibn Saud’s rise to power. They killed unarmed villagers regarded as apostates, thought nothing of slaughtering women and children, and routinely slit the throats of male captives. Contemporary accounts describe the horrors afflicted on the city of Taif in 1924, when the Ikhwan murdered hundreds of civilians, in a massacre similar to the violence committed by Islamic State or al-Qaida today. As an Arab witness wrote, Ibn Saud’s forces ‘normally give no quarter, sparing neither boys nor old men, veritable messengers of death from whose grasp no one escapes’. Some 400,000 people are reported to have been massacred by the Ikhwan during the early days of the Saudi state. The Wahhabi understanding of tawhid, the theology of monotheism or divine unicity, which forbids the veneration of any person or object other than Allah, is still used today to justify the ban on all forms of non-Muslim public worship in the kingdom, as well as the confiscation of non-Wahhabi textual sources such as Quranic commentaries brought in by pilgrims from South Asia, who have had them removed by the religious police while attending the Hajj. But tawhid, a theology that claims to be fundamentally opposed to polytheism, has an unexpected consequence. It mines the Islamic discourse to sustain a totalitarian outlook whose actual purpose is the preservation and enrichment of the tribal dynasty that owns and governs this enormous country in its exclusive interest.
Novelist Colm Tóibín takes a brief look at Barcelona, Joan Miró, Las Ramblas, terrorism, and tourism.
At that time the Ramblas was still the place where locals strolled in the evening. It had begun as a small stream whose channel was used in the dry season as a roadway. In the 18th century the stream was diverted and the Ramblas became a place to walk, with plane trees offering shelter. It is about the width of a four-lane street, with kiosks selling newspapers, flowers and (these days) ice cream, and some outdoor tables for bars, with two narrow lanes on either side, like an afterthought, for traffic. Although the pedestrian section is slightly raised, there is no real barrier between the lanes for cars and the boulevard for walkers.
Miró’s tiles were put down in an almost-circle at Plaça d’Os, just above the Liceu Opera House, near the Boqueria Market. Miró loved the idea that people would actually walk on his tiles, made in his customary colours – blue, yellow, red, black – and using some of his customary iconography. This was the first sign of a new spirit in Barcelona, which would use culture, civic pride and the idea of vivid street life to reimagine the city, giving rise, in turn, to the development of mass tourism.
Amia Srinivasan takes a fascinating and creepy look at octopuses.
Octopuses do not have any stable colour or texture, changing at will to match their surroundings: a camouflaged octopus can be invisible from just a few feet away. Like humans, they have centralised nervous systems, but in their case there is no clear distinction between brain and body. An octopus’s neurons are dispersed throughout its body, and two-thirds of them are in its arms: each arm can act intelligently on its own, grasping, manipulating and hunting. (Octopuses have arms, not tentacles: tentacles have suckers only at their tips. Squid and cuttlefish have a combination of arms and tentacles.) In evolutionary terms, the intelligence of octopuses is an anomaly. The last common ancestor between octopuses on the one hand, and humans and other intelligent animals (monkeys, dolphins, dogs, crows) on the other, was probably a primitive, blind worm-like creature that existed six hundred million years ago. Other creatures that are so evolutionarily distant from humans – lobsters, snails, slugs, clams – rate pretty low on the cognitive scale. But octopuses – and to some extent their cephalopod cousins, cuttlefish and squid – frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. They are sophisticated problem solvers; they learn, and can use tools; and they show a capacity for mimicry, deception and, some think, humour. Just how refined their abilities are is a matter of scientific debate: their very strangeness makes octopuses hard to study. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.
The LRB often takes a look at parochial topics like some king from way back in the day, or some debate in contemporary London, that may or may not be of interest to you. If not, you can easily skip them. (As with the New Yorker, it’s difficult to keep up with the LRB, even though the latter is deceptively thin and only comes out every 2-3 weeks. So some skipping is generally needed).
Here’s one of those British pieces, a look at the life of Prince Charles.
At the age of 23 Prince Charles embarked with no great enthusiasm on a six-week training course at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. The course had been reduced from the usual three months for him, but it was long enough for Charles to realise that seafaring was yet another area in which he and his father had nothing in common. Prince Philip had a distinguished naval career. His son struggled with navigation, which he found confusing, and he didn’t much like the rough and tumble of life onboard ship. One exercise involved performing an ‘underwater escape from a submarine’: a not inapt image for a life spent trapped in a role he didn’t choose doing things he doesn’t like for people who don’t much appreciate them. That at least has often been his own view. He has made no secret of his difficulties or of the fact that his childhood was unhappy in many ways. An awkward boy who didn’t take after either his bluff father or his pragmatic, dutiful but distant mother, by the age of eight he was already worried about doing the right thing. Once, at lunch with the Mountbattens, Edwina Mountbatten explained to him that he shouldn’t take the stalks out of his strawberries because he could pick them up by the stems and dip them in the sugar. His cousin Pamela Hicks noticed a few minutes later that ‘the poor child was trying to put all the stems back on. That was so sad.’ ‘Sad’ is a word that has often been applied to the Prince of Wales, with every shade of intonation from empathy to contempt. It recurs here in books which are interesting more for what they reveal about the continuing narrative of the royal family and its symbiotic relationship with the media than for anything new in the way of facts.
Not everything is perfect, of course. The LRB has some definite biases that render their takes on various issues suspect. Israel-Palestine is one of them. You’ll quickly find out most of the rest yourself and adjust accordingly. (Hint: one of them is illustrated in the Barcelona piece).
However, I find the LRB consistently the best and most illuminating periodical I read. And no, they didn’t pay me to say this. In fact, I pay them to subscribe. If you want one reading suggestion from me that you’re not likely to get from others, it’s the London Review of Books.