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Paris: Biography of a City Paperback – 6 Apr 2006
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"Paris is the World, the rest of the Earth is nothing but its suburbs" - Marivaux. In this intelligently-written and supremely entertaining new history, Colin Jones seeks to give a sense of the city of Paris as it was lived in and experienced over time. The focal point of generation upon generation of admirers and detractors, a source of attraction or repulsion even for those who have never been there, Paris has witnessed more extraordinary events than any other major city. No spot on earth has been more walked around, written about, discussed, painted and photographed. With an eye for the revealing, startling and (sometimes) horrible detail, Colin Jones takes the reader from Roman Paris to the present, recreating the ups and downs in the history of the city and its inhabitants. Attentive to both the urban environment and to the experience of those who lived within it, "Paris: Biography of a City" will be hugely enjoyed by habitual Paris obsessives, by first-time visitors, and by those who know the city only by repute.
About the Author
Colin Jones is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Great Nation (Penguin) and The Cambridge Illustrated History of France.
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I was disappointed by what seemed to me the almost complete suppression of historical imagination. Part of my reason for buying the book was wanting to know what living in Paris felt like to real individual people in different periods. There's very little of that. Especially in the later chapters, there are plenty of snippety references to things said in novels or poems or presented in paintings or films, but none of a kind to suggest that Jones had much interest in getting into the mindset of the artists in question so as to see things from their point of view, and there's little or none of the testimony from personal documents and letters that could have told us so much.
That said, Paris: Biography of a City has a hugely interesting story to tell. It marshals a vast array of facts clearly and efficiently in a brisk, workmanlike prose that may not offer much interest in itself but never clogs the narrative either. It has all the virtues of a good textbook on a grand scale. In terms of bringing the past to life it seemed to me altogether inferior to John Hale's The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, but it was well worth reading and is a book I envisage going back to for reference purposes.
There's a detailed history of the growth of Paris, covering both the politics and also, more importantly, the social history - the river-merchants' trade and their guild are crucial, as witness the ship on the arms of the city. Jones also, in a series of "side-bars", explores particular themes or localities in a manner that cuts across the chronology and opens up fascinating sidelights on the city - subjects here include the Roman amphitheatre, the Arènes de Lutéce, which was lost under the growing city and remains strangely off the tourist trails; the Rue Mouffetard and its role first as major artery out of the medieval city and then as Bohemian hang-out in the early twentieth century; lost rivers such as the Bièvre, the iceworks on which gave its name to the Glacière metro stop, and so on.
I could have done with a little more information on the area outside the fortifications, the "banlieu" beyond the Ville-de-Paris department (Jones covers its modern form well, but we hear little about these settlements before the city sweeps over them in the twentieth century) but this is a trifling point: this is a fantastic guide to the multi-layered history of the city and warmly recommended to any English speaker visiting the city or just wanting to wallow in it vicariously.
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