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Save the Bibliographic Note, Pitch the Text
on November 22, 2009
That's the long and the short of it. I found Kotkin's little essay on "suggested reading" useful - as were many of the sources he cited - but the text? Hardly at all. Full disclosure/truth in lending would have required Kotkin to entitle his book, "The City: A Thin Schematic Outline That Raises More Questions Than It Answers Before Ending Discussions Abruptly." For this is indeed simply an outline.
Fine: it's a short book, a mere 160 pp of text, plus almost 40 pp of notes (a good thing), and the 7 pp of suggested readings. I suppose the Modern Library's "Chronicles" format - "featuring the world's great historians on the world's great subjects," all at less than 200 pp - should have tipped me off, but there was the offsetting kudos of Witold Rybczynski: "A compelling and original synthesis that belongs on the urbanist's bookshelf with Lewis Mumford, Peter Hall, and Fernand Braudel." Yes, Prof. Rybczynski, I suppose so, but perhaps only as the first book to pull off that shelf for kindling when the cabin grows cold. Kotkin really doesn't deserve this bonbon from Rybczynski; nor does he belong in this seminal company. His book doesn't seem to contain much that's original; it seems mostly derived from the insights of others. (I suppose that's why it's a "synthesis.") For the most part, much of it - and surely its central thesis that cities are built on sacred, security, or commercial foundations - is in Mumford and Hall, much else, particularly on the rise of commercial cities, may be found in Braudel, and in the later chapters more contemporary writers like Daniel Bell, Saskia Sassen, Manuel Castells, Kenneth Jackson, and Joel Garreau, are among the many authorities who show up. Throughout, the discussion is cursory and in places absolutely superficial, as though lists of observations and authorities had been cobbled together into paragraphs that often end with a clunk.
On the Third World city Kotkin struck me as almost wholly without a clue, although I surmise that, had he written closer to the present time, he would have been able to cull a few interesting and relevant ideas from the World Bank's World Development Report 2009, in which the Bank turns a major corner on developing-economy cities, finally seeing them as potential developing-world engines of growth. Kotkin didn't himself divine any of this at the time of his writing, for the most part reheating accounts of the many pathologies of developing-world urbanization, misunderstanding, among other things, the pull of primate cities in an otherwise bleak,largely subsistence agrarian landscape - "cities = the promise of a better life for millions" - the structural role of informal economies in developing countries, and quite a bit more.
But the little "suggested reading" essay is extremely worthwhile. For this, and for the Robert Ezra Parks quote on "the city as a state of mind," two stars.