London: The Biography – Peter Ackroyd

For me it was always one of those intimidating books, I felt that by living in London I am somehow obliged to read it and know more about the city that is gradually becoming ‘my city’ in my mind, but on the other hand it is 800 pages long, there’s no denying that. Because of this it was stuck on my shelf for I think something close to five years, looking at me accusingly every time I came close. Then it made my last year’s TBR only to be one of the books I didn’t read, so this year I added it again, but I also did some planning. With a book this long it was necessary, I decided to take it with me on holiday, knowing that two weeks should be more than enough time and brain space to deal with it. I was right, but sadly my planning was rewarded to a smaller extent than I expected.

The book starts quite predictably in prehistoric times. Ackroyd quickly takes us through the history of how the city emerged and through the first few centuries, but after that he changes tactics, form chronological to topic oriented, which in itself is definitely a good choice, making it easier to keep reader’s attention. We go through a long list of topics and because I was reading in quite long sessions sometimes it gets tedious. It feels like Ackroyd goes over the same source material over and over again, just looking at it from a slightly different angle every time. Probably due to availability of the source material he focuses a lot on the period between 16th and 19th century, which made me realize that I am much more interested in London’s recent history. Also at times the chapters just read like long lists of names and places, it feels like he tries to cover so much ground that there is no time to dig deeper into some aspects, which is a shame. I felt like I didn’t learn many new things, even though I always thought my knowledge of London history and mythology is very superficial. I felt like the chapters about 20th century at the end were added almost like an afterthought, more out of obligation than interest.

Another thing that really annoyed me by the end of the book was obsessive use of the metaphor of the city as theatre and city as prison, Ackroyd makes it sound like London is special because it feels both like a theatre and prison, but when we take a step back it probably is true of every city of this size. It was almost like he was so set on finding what is special about London that he missed it and ended up with a metaphor that is universal rather than specific.

Of course not all was wrong with the book, I admire the amount of research that went into it and the decision to make it accessible rather than bury all this work in yet another obscure academic text. I think it may be interesting for people who are more into 16th-19th century history and also for people who just start their adventure with London. Ackroyd challenged a monster and even if this book is not a glorious victory it is being marketed as it still is an impressive achievement. It also made me realize that next time I want to read about London I probably should venture into the realm of recent history and look for books about specific aspects of history or specific people, rather than another all encompassing book, London has proven time and time again it is to big and too multifaceted to be contained in a single book, no matter how long.

Do you enjoy reading about your city? Do you have any favorite books about cities?

Quotes from London: The Biography 

This is book #12 of my 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746books.
See my list as it grows here.

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @ vkphotospace

20-books 2017

10 thoughts on “London: The Biography – Peter Ackroyd

  1. I do like reading about my city, Glasgow, but in fiction rather than factual. I’d been tempted by this book, having lived in London for a few years, but it sounds as if he hasn’t made it altogether fasicnating. I tried to read his biography of Dickens several years ago and found it far too detailed and long-winded. I think I’ll pass on this one – thanks for an informative review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, this definitely was not an overly excitong read 😉 I learned some things and he put a lot of work into research, but it’s a tough read. What’s your favorite book about Glasgow?


      1. Usually crime fiction since that seems to be what Scottish writers specialise in. I think my overall favourite would have to be William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw – it’s wonderfully well written and the portrayal of Glasgow at that time is excellent.

        Liked by 1 person

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