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London: The Biography Hardcover – October 16, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Novelist and biographer Ackroyd (The Plato Papers; T.S. Eliot; etc.) offers a huge, enthralling "biography" of the city of London. The reader segues through this litany of lists and anthology of anecdotes via the sketchiest of topical linkages, but no matter not a page is dull, until brief closing chapters in which Ackroyd succumbs to bathos, for which he's instantaneously redeemed by the preceding chapters. He admits to using no original research, openly crediting his printed sources. Ackroyd examines London from its pre-history through today, artfully selecting, organizing and pacing stories, and rendering the past in witty and imaginative ways. "The opium quarter of Limehouse," he tells readers, for example, "is now represented by a Chinese take-away." Fast food, it seems, was always part of the London scene. When poet Thomas Southey asked a pastry cook why she kept her shop open in the worst weather, she told him that otherwise she would lose business, "so many were the persons who took up buns or biscuits as they passed by and threw their pence in, not allowing themselves time to enter." Ackroyd covers unrest and peace, fires and ruins, river and rail transport, crime and punishment, wealth and poverty, markets and churches, uncontrolled growth and barely controlled filth. If there is a hero among the throngs, it may be engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who in 1855 began building 1,265 miles of sewers to contain the Stygian odor of progress and keep the huge, ugly metropolis livable. No one should mind the extraordinary price of this extraordinary achievement. B&w illus., maps not seen by PW. (On sale Oct. 16)Forecast: Published to acclaim in England, this is virtually guaranteed major review coverage here, and the publisher will also shoot for national media. Anglophiles and others will rejoice.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

This trip through London, conducted by novelist/biographer Ackroyd, is less concerned with chronology than with human drama.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1st edition (October 16, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385497709
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385497701
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #644,690 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

128 of 132 people found the following review helpful By D. W. Casey on December 4, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Everyone can tell stories about their hometown and anecdotes about the place they grew up, some of which are true, some of which are dubious, and some of which are outright fabrications. I can tell you stories about my small hometown in Massachusetts which can alternately put you to sleep or amuse you.
Imagine someone telling you stories about London; stories which over 2000 years have been embellished and polished to the point where they might be considered mythology. Consider these stories ranging over the whole course of the city's life, and you have some idea of what this book is like. It is a breathtaking book, where anecdotes of Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, The Victorian Era, and today are all seamlessly mixed in a wonderful stew. I cannot imagine the amount of scholarship that went into this work; I rather think that Mr. Ackroyd is some type of immortal who has experienced these stories and anecdotes of London firsthand.
This is a truly wonderful book to give to any Anglophile friends you may have; it is history at its compelling best, long on anecdote and short on drudgery. It is also written extremely well; there is never a jarring turn of phrase in the book. Well worth the hardbound price, this is the perfect Christmas present to anyone you know who has lived in London, been to London, or who loves history.
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95 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Joe TOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 28, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As evidenced by its 779 narrative pages and its 13 pages of sources, LONDON: THE BIOGRAPHY is a prodigious accomplishment by author and city resident Peter Ackroyd. And it did take me five weeks to read it.

Since I'd rather be in London than anywhere else, especially the Southern California I'm in, I began this volume with giddy anticipation. In his narrative of the city from pre-Roman times to the present, Ackroyd touches on the history of many of its diverse aspects: rivers, commerce, architecture, transport, theaters, street ballads, parks, food, weather, maps, neighborhoods, nationalities, fires, fog, pestilences, the effects of the Blitz, public lighting, law enforcement, sanitation and clubs. He also doesn't neglect London's unsavory side: alcoholism, gambling, blood sports, prisons, crime, the homeless, poverty, beggars, mob violence, racism, child labor, prostitution, overcrowding, the insane, slums, air and water pollution, and general squalor and filth. Because the author seemed (to me) so preoccupied with the latter dreary group, I suspect he's a closet social reformer.

LONDON isn't a riveting read. Surprisingly, I could put it down for such jolly pursuits as taking out the trash and cleaning the cats' litter box. Perhaps it's because the author's style, never leavened by any humor, becomes at times almost ponderous. For instance, in the chapter "How Many Miles to Babylon?", he comments:

"Yet there is one more salient aspect to this continual analogy of London with ancient civilisations: it is the fear, or hope, or expectation that this great imperial capital will in its turn fall into ruin.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By D. Myers on November 16, 2004
Format: Paperback
As far as I am concerned, you can have Paris in the springtime. Give me London in the rain.

Ackroyd's book shares many characteristics with its namesake - it is crowded, organic, chaotic, and full of life. It also shares many of the City's faults - it's hard sometimes to find what you are looking for, and you can look in vain for any reason behind the juxtapositions of different cultural artifacts. Nevertheless, anyone who has spent more than the obligatory few days in the obligatory tourist sites will recognize the city from Ackroyd's prose.

One may complain that Ackroyd lingers too much on London's history of crime, social unrest, and dirt. Well, what do you expect of a city that boasts having had the "Great Stink" of 1858? Casual travelers, people who are looking for a simplistic history to read while in line for Madame Tussaud's, and anyone who desires a Disney-fied, Mary Poppins fantasy will be unhappy with this book.

But if you want to know what London _feels_ like, this book comes closer than anything else I have read to making me feel like I do when I am there. There is no city better for aimless wandering, stumbling through alleys, exploring the Underground, and observing the small details. It is a world-city grown pell-mell by greed, lust and need, with beauty in unexpected places and quiet rarer than gold, and more precious. In short, it is life. And, as Samuel Johnson famously said, "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
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41 of 47 people found the following review helpful By D. Cloyce Smith on April 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Impressive in its scope, astonishing in its erudition, overwhelming in its detail, "London" contains a smorgasbord of information from an awe-inspiring number of sources. Unlike most histories (much less biographies), most of the material in "London" is organized by theme; only three "events"--the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the Blitz--are examined in depth. Chapters detail architecture, neighborhoods, markets, work, entertainment, food, drink, smells, crime, punishment, madness, sickness, and more. Critics have noted that the reader will find few aristocrats or statesmen among the pages of this book; Ackroyd's focus is on the streets, the habitats, the commoners, and the everyday life of London. Civil war and uprisings, kings and queens, mayors and parliaments are mentioned only in passing.
Yet this is certainly no treatise inspired the Annales school. Instead, "London" is a social history written by a novelist and literary historian, one who is more likely to quote Pepys, Boswell, Dickens, or Orwell than to invoke Cromwell, Pitt, Disraeli, or Churchill. The author favors fiction, diaries, essays, and similar remnants of the literati over court documents, tax records, and other types of evidence examined by English social historians such as Lawrence Stone or E. P. Thompson.
While Ackroyd excels in compilation, he neglects any attempt at true synthesis. The book's overwhelming erudition, while admirable, is sometimes oppressive, and there seems to be little thought given to the structure of the book. One could toss most of its 79 chapters into the air and read them in the order in which they fall to the ground, with little loss in comprehension.
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