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Berlin: Imagine a City [Hardcover]

Rory MacLean
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

13 Feb 2014

BERLIN is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by a Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centres of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realized and evils executed. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.

Rory MacLean assembles a dazzlingly eclectic cast of Berliners over five centuries, from the wild medieval balladeer to the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a royal princess, from the Scottish mercenary who fought for the Prussian Army to the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall. Alongside them we encounter Marlene Dietrich flaunting her sexuality in The Blue Angel, Goebbels concocting Nazi iconography, Hitler fantasising about the mega-city Germania and David Bowie recording 'Heroes'.

Through these vivid portraits, Rory MacLean masterfully evokes the seen and the unseen, in a richly varied, unexpected tour of Berlin's history. The result is a unique biography of one of the world's most volatile and creative cities.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (13 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297868829
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297868828
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 23,610 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rory MacLean is one of Britain's most expressive and adventurous travel writers. His ten books, including UK best-sellers 'Stalin's Nose' and 'Under the Dragon', have challenged and invigorated creative non-fiction writing, and - according to the late John Fowles - are among works that 'marvellously explain why literature still lives'. He has won awards from the Canada Council and the Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary prize. He has written and presented over 50 BBC radio programmes and worked on movies with Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Rory divides his time between Berlin, London and Dorset.

Product Description


I loved it. It is such a beautiful way of understanding history, its stories are so vivaciously told, it is so heartfelt, so intelligent, and so talkative a book. So many of the characters do end up talking to each other, and the author is eavesdropping. It paints the past and the present, portrays Berlin as a portrait of someone you love. It is beautiful. (Jay Griffiths)

A brilliant new history of Berlin...What makes MacLean's history of Berlin stand out is that this is an intensely human document, a rich tapestry spanning five centuries and woven together through intimate portraits of 21 if its former inhabitants which collectively reveal the narrative of the city....This is how I love history to be told, through the people who live it...a fascinating book. (THE OBSERVER)

The best history is biography: the story of the people who shaped and destroyed, entertained, beautified and murdered. Rory MacLean imagines Berlin through its inhabitants. (THE TIMES)

Berlin takes the form of 23 portraits of individuals...the text sings. A compelling piece about the industrialist and Weimar foreign minister Walter Rathenau is full of auguries of the nightmares of the 30s and 40s. (THE GUARDIAN)

Rory MacLean's Berlin: Imagine a History is intelligent, entertaining and ambitious...MacLean has written a great book about Berliners. (NEW STATESMAN)

This grandly ambitious work has a noble intention: to re-create through art and imagination the whole historic presence of a great capital, from its beginnings to its present day...Maclean's book is a wonderful achievement, not justly to be summarised in the few hundred words of a review. but hauntingly representing, as in a tangled dream, 600 years of history. (Jan Morris THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)

Rory MacLean offers an entirely beguiling and original portrait of Berlin. His is a highly unusual history told in a variety of forms by 'vital anonymous players in history's grand drama' alongside some of the major thinkers, dreamers, artists, warmongers and idealists who have shaped this eternally enthralling metropolis....a perfect companion for those about to discover, or attempting to make sense of, their own Berlin. (THE INDEPENDENT)

An atmospheric view of Berlin as seen through its people. (LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER MAGAZINE)

Book Description

The intimate biography of one of the world's great cities - from medieval times to the twenty-first century

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing, compelling, utterly brilliant 24 April 2014
This book had me enthralled from the first pages, spellbound by its insights into a city of which I previously had such one dimensional knowledge. It felt as though Maclean were shining light through a prism at Berlin's long story, some aspects coming startlingly close, others darkly receding. Going way beyond a standard 'history', it gives such a sense of life, of character and how events long past continue to influence the present and its future. It has stayed with me in the weeks since reading it in a way that very few books do. I can't recommend highly enough.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I bought Berlin, Imagine a City primarily because I am a fan of the author, Rory Maclean. I've read four of Rory Maclean's travel books and love his sensitive, easy style of writing. But then I read the book description and bought it for the subject too. Berlin, Imagine a City hooked me from the first page. No boring history book, this. The author draws us, century by century, chapter by chapter into the lives of all those who played a part in the creation, downfall and rebirth of this great city. We meet Käthe Kollwitz (worth the price of the book just to read her story), Christopher Isherwood, Brecht, Marlene Dietrich and David Bowie. Yes, even the years of Hitler which I wasn't sure I wanted to read but when I did kept saying to myself, 'I didn't know that!' And if you are one of those who ask the question, 'How could the German people have allowed the holocaust to happen?' this book will answer the question. Rory Maclean's makes history accessible and fascinating and personal. A fabulous book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Like Berlin, this book gets under your skin! 26 May 2014
By Tyke
An excellent book for a great City. I could not put this book down and ended up finishing it whilst supposedly watching a live sporting event.

Rory McLean has invented a new format for this book. It is essentially a "biography" of Berlin in the form of 23 mini-biographies of people who lived in the City from the 15th century onwards. Some are famous (Frederick the Great, Goebbels, Dietrich, Rathenau, Brecht, Isherwood, JFK and many others); others were virtually unknown. The range of backgrounds is vast. So little is known about some of the subjects that their biographies owe as much to a fictional approach as to historical research. McLean uses a range of styles to tell the individual stories, so there is variety within the overall framework. Gradually, from these bios, a picture of a fascinating city emerges, sometimes a place of immense evil, sometimes endlessly creative, inordinately powerful, then reduced to its knees and to rubble; on occasions obedient to the point of obsequiousness, more rarely but periodically bolshie and challenging.

I've only visited Berlin once, quite recently and briefly, despite living in the old West Germany for a few years. I never really understood why on one such brief visit, I could become so entranced. Having read McLean's book, I begin to understand why. Like the muscular Austrian: " I will be back!"
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5.0 out of 5 stars Glorious and insightful 6 May 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is an eclectic, novelistic journey through Berlin's history, revealing the city through a multitude of people and perspectives. Highly recommended.
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