Summer reading

One recently finished and one recently started

If you loved Technology in the Ancient World or The Mummies of Urumchi, you will enjoy Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years. Elizabeth W. Barber tells the story of textiles as a branch of anthropology that she helped launch.

Clothing, like architecture, presents a first line of defense against the elements. And then it acquires meaning and symbol.

So much of what we use and experience each day can be taken for granted. Traditional history and prehistory trace a line narrative stringing together accounts of great deeds and interpreting durable remnants of peoples past. Buildings, engineering, coins present hard evidence. But, just as in our present time, the social infrastructure that made those deeds and monuments possible was made up of the perishable goods and services in people’s everyday lives. Food preparation, child rearing, textiles, or nursing leave few and ephemeral physical traces.

By studying the scant evidence of fabrics and looms together with depictions of the work and descriptions in texts (such as in the Odyssey), Barber weaves a complex and engrossing tale of that essential craft that shaped our world.

Fastforward to the 21st century’s Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser. Architect-type friends have mostly raved about this book. The subtitle seems promising: “How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier” (author’s caps). Ed is an urban economist. Great! I think that’s exactly who should be looking at the complexity that is a city. I am cautiously optimistic. I’m into the first few chapters right now.

Hopefully the author won’t fall into the trap that has become standard in the expostulations about urban life. These usually decline into taking sides for or against cities versus suburbs. If you love one you must hate the other, the argument goes. So far Glaeser alludes to the silliness of such discussions. But he slides a little into that abyss by slicing and selecting the data. In demonstrating how the concentration of people in cities magnifies their collective intellectual potential, he recounts that in the middle ages the centers of knowledge were in the few largest cities. Did he ever hear about monasteries? Those were exurban enclaves, for sure. But many were the centers of intellectual activity. Just like Silicon Valley. To Ed, Silicon Valley has produced such talent because of its city-like qualities, not its monastic qualities (founded far from a city to attract focused, like-minded individuals). Hmmm. Trap?

Anyway, I really hope that an urban economist can be objective and look at the macro scale of the problem. To me, that includes the city with its many surrounding smaller towns and suburbs. Dear Mr. Glaeser, please discuss:

  1. Why is Grand Central Station so busy and important? It might be because even a city as great as New York cannot be self-contained. It can’t exist by only employing its residents, nor can it always employ all of them. And many of its workers simply choose the amenities of living beyond NYC. Glaeser himself must commute from the City to Boston to teach his classes, a Big-Foot carbon print.
  2. The great cultural attractions usually are headquartered in large cities. As well they should be. Some years ago when volunteering for a non-profit, another volunteer there had just finished putting together the Colorado Ballet’s gala fundraiser. She told me that the bulk of her donors were from the suburbs of Denver. It was not the city population that supported the Ballet. The Cultural and Scientific Facilities District that funds such venues as the Denver Zoo extends far beyond the city core, well out into the suburbs and small towns. Without the exurban population, those facilities would be underfunded. Should Broadway musicals not cater to anyone living outside Manhattan, they’d go bankrupt.
  3. It seems to me, cities have never existed without the countryside and the suburbs. There are many things we can hate about the suburbs. But what, specifically, is to be hated? What loved? Many urbanites are able to appreciate and enjoy the small towns and exurbs in other countries, but rarely the ones in their own country (unless it’s their country house).
  4. What constitutes a city versus a suburb? Most people who live in pre-WW2 suburbs don’t consider themselves suburban. Is Queens suburban? How about Newton, Massachusetts? Or Washington Park, Denver?

I can’t wait to see if the economist puts numbers to these items.