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Paris: The Biography of a City [Paperback]

by Colin Jones
3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 4, 2006 0143036718 978-0143036715 Reprint

From the Roman Emperor Julian, who waxed rhapsodic about Parisian wine and figs, to Henry Miller, who relished its seductive bohemia, Paris has been a perennial source of fascination for 2,000 years. In this definitive and illuminating history, Colin Jones walks us through the city that was a plague-infested charnel house during the Middle Ages, the bloody epicenter of the French Revolution, the muse of nineteenth-century Impressionist painters, and much more. Jones’s masterful narrative is enhanced by numerous photographs and feature boxes—on the Bastille or Josephine Baker, for instance—that complete a colorful and comprehensive portrait of a place that has endured Vikings, Black Death, and the Nazis to emerge as the heart of a resurgent Europe. This is a thrilling companion for history buffs and backpack, or armchair, travelers alike.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Jones, a historian at Britain's University of Warwick, has written a remarkable account of the most celebrated city in the world that blends history, literary sensibility and experience in an understated, affectionate but not sentimental voice. Moving from prehistoric tribal habitation through Roman times, medieval uncertainty and splendor, early modern religious wars, Enlightenment, revolution, and two world wars, Jones examines how rulers, economy, religion and violence have shaped the city. With a concrete sense of place, he evokes the layering of history revealed in the monuments and less visible remnants of the past. While one might deplore the loss of an earlier Paris in wartime ravages and the triumphs and failures of city planning (especially under the infamous Haussmann), one begins to sense that the extent to which the city has been built, embellished, demolished and rebuilt contributes to its vibrancy. Boxed inserts in each chapter that elaborate on locations and themes at first seem awkwardly placed, but their worth in tying together time and place quickly becomes clear: now-hidden rivers and city walls, a barely recognizable Roman amphitheater, the evolution of restaurants and numerous other sites and topics emerge. The poetry of place established in the early chapters is occasionally overwhelmed by the intensive detail of later time periods, but anyone who loves Paris will find connections and revelations here, a Paris of the mind that resonates through the centuries. B&w illus. (On sale Apr. 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

As comprehensive in detail and scope as a one-volume history of an ages-old city can comfortably be, but written with a decidedly scholarly tone, this "biography" will find its audience among history aficionados and ardent travelers unafraid to make a significant commitment to reading time and concentration. Logically, Jones relates the history of Paris in a chronological narrative. Augmenting his presentation are frequent "feature boxes," which are sidebars that tackle in more depth certain ancillary but definitely relevant topics, including Robert de Sorbon, founder of the great university; famous letter-writer Madame de Sevigne; and the neighborhood called the Marais. From the city known as Lutetia to the ancient Romans, to its status as a major urban center by the twelfth century, to its establishment as the permanent seat of the French monarchy, to its unseating when Louis XIV moved to Versailles, and then beyond, the story of Paris is made both graphic and distinctive. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (April 4, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143036718
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143036715
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #177,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent History of Paris, But Keep a Map Handy! October 3, 2005
This is a very good history of Paris. It is well-written and keeps you engaged throughout. It's not the sort of history that you have to force yourself to keep reading. If you have any interest at all in Paris you will enjoy reading this very much.

One of the techniques he uses, that I really enjoyed, is that he includes highlighted sections where he steps out of the strictly chronological description of what happened when and goes into a deeper description of a particular place, building, or incident. This breaks up the book just enough to keep it from getting tedious, and fills in details just when you want them.

The only complaint that I have is that he is very sketchy on details of what was going on in the rest of the world. Of course, this is a history of Paris, so how much time should he really spend on what was happening elsewhere? Still, it would have been useful to have a little more context; just enough to be better able to place the significant events in Paris with what was happening at the same time in the rest of the world.

Another comment (not a complaint, really), is that I found it absolutely necessary to have an overview map of Paris handy while I was reading. He seems to assume a fair degree of familiarity with the layout of the city. In particular, he frequently describes where something is only by mentioning which Arrondisment it's in, or what major cross streets are nearby. If you know Paris well enough to place things this way, more power to you. I don't, so I found myself frequently referring to a map.

But these are minor criticisms. Overall, this book is excellent and more than worth the cover price for anyone with any interest in Paris.
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20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars City Streets October 1, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a workmanlike one-volume history of Paris, covering about one thousand years. I would especially recommend it for people deeply interested in urban architecture and city planning given that Professor Jones spends much effort detailing the changing nature and design of the streets and buildings of Paris. Most general readers will find this none too exciting. Those wanting to learn about a specific historical incident, for example the Commune of 1871, will likely read about it in this volume but should just buy one of the many good books that there are sure to be on that given incident. A nice aspect of the book are the many feature boxes that tell interesting tales related to the City of Light that would not fit into the author's general narrative. For the reader who wants a flavor of Paris without the sometimes numbing detail provided by this book, please consider Edmund White's The Flaneur and Alistair Horne's The Seven Ages of Paris.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I understand now that the "biography of a city" genre means, literally, what happened to the city in question throughout its existence. This does not mean the reader will get a historical survey of events within the city. It means the reader will get a more-or-less chronological account of building programs, road building, and changes in sewage infrastructure.

In short: dry reading.

I bought Paris: The Biography of a City on the eve of my trip to Paris, thinking a history of Paris would give me a sense of context. However, history involves people and events. Needless to say, I was sorely disappointed by what I got, and instead read John Roberts's excellent book, The French Revolution. But driven by an obsession with finishing every book I start, I finished reading this book on my return to the U.S.

Taken for what it is, this book is a decent and apparently accurate catalog of Paris's growth since its early years. However, Jones merely mentions in passing major events like the St. Bartholomew's massacre and Napoleon III's coup d'etat, and people like Robespierre and Napoleon Bonaparte, as if the reader already knew all about them.

A city without people is not a city. Likewise, a biography of a city that goes into almost no detail about the people who lived in that city through the ages is hardly a biography. Or at least, hardly a biography worth reading.
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14 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Terrible organization and lazy execution May 31, 2006
By s
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is terribly organized. I'm not sure what happened in writing this book, but it seems clear that Professor Jones did not compile this in the chronological order that it is printed in.

My main complaint is that rather obscure concepts/people/events are repeatedly referred to, and then only later does Jones bother to define them. (I would almost prefer that he not define something at all, rather than offering a definition 100 pages after his first reference to it!) The fact that the book has an index only further infuriated me - clearly the author/publisher knew where all these terms were located throughout the book, yet did not bother to offer a definition in the appropriate/first reference to the concept.

Examples are numerous, but here are a few:
**robe nobility: referenced on pages 139, 152, 183. Defined? (pg. 183)
**sans culottes: first referenced on page 189, defined on page 231.
**Louis-Sebastien Mercier: referenced on pages 11, 138, 178, 189, 200, 204, 212, 213. When did Jones provide information (that he was a "journalist, dramatist and observer of Parisian mores") on just WHO Mercier is? Page 215.

Aside from that, there are some plain old errors. One such is in the text box on Saint Genevieve. Jones mentions that she negotiated with Frankish military chieftains in the 570s and 580s. She died in 512AD, so the negotiations seem improbable. (470s & 480s would be correct, but I should not have to figure that out.)

The redeeming quality of the book is that if DOES offer information on Paris if you are willing to sift through the above mentioned annoyances. And Paris is not such a bad subject.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Paris Eternel
This is an excellent book for anyone seriously curious about the history of one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Read more
Published 2 months ago by jchbowman
5.0 out of 5 stars Paris: The Biography of a City, review
This book is somewhat of a heavy read but well worth the time. It covers the entire history of Paris with interesting facts and information that the average tourist, visiting the... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Laura W.
1.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't bring myself to finish.
Throughout the introduction I thought, ok, there isn't any actual information, but I'm sure the actual body will fix that.
No such luck. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Misslilo
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting History of Paris narrative
Interesting story of lovely Paris through the ages. Just a bit pedantic, but definitely readable. Fascinating characters. Read more
Published 13 months ago by David McGrath
5.0 out of 5 stars Easily the best history of Paris
Don't believe the reviews on here. This is actually a very readable book. Perhaps some might find it too scholarly but to my mind that doesn't detract from its readability. Read more
Published on September 16, 2010 by S. K. A. Kitson
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent try but could have used more focus
This books greatest strength and weakness is that it is one of the most thorough overviews on the city of Paris history that has been written yet. Read more
Published on December 14, 2007 by Lehigh History Student
1.0 out of 5 stars no hook.
I found this book disappointing for other reasons than reviewers have already cited. Namely, it's a very poorly-chosen title. Read more
Published on September 3, 2007 by tierny
2.0 out of 5 stars Needs more illustrations and pictures
Being from Paris and now living in the US, I looked forward to this book. I thought I would get a review of history and maybe find out new things. Read more
Published on April 23, 2006 by Danielle Amundsen
3.0 out of 5 stars Fluctuat nec mergitur
Throughout history, Paris has been called alternately "Queen of Cities,' 'Capital of Enlightenment, 'City of Modernity,' 'City of Light,' and 'Capital of the Civilized World. Read more
Published on October 20, 2005 by Betty Burks
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