Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
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Book: The death and life of great American cities

Author: Jane Jacobs

Details: (c) Jane Jacobs 1961; Pub Pimlico 2000; ISBN 0-7126-6583-8

Verdict: The death and life of great American cities has some interesting ideas but the style got wearing.

Reasons for reading it: M was reading it a few months ago, and wanted to talk about some of the ideas in it.

How it came into my hands: M lent me his copy. One of many reasons why I like M is that when he recommends a book, he quite often lends it to me as well, rather than getting offended when I don't manage to find a copy very quickly.

I have to confess I don't read a great deal of non-fiction, and even less polemic regarding subjects I know nothing about (town planning, in this case). I generally have a bit of an aversion to being told what to think.

Anyway, the central theme of D&L seems to be that diversity (as opposed to segregation or unity of function) is a good thing for cities. This seems a reasonable contention, and Jacobs puts some plausible arguments in favour of this view. However, as she herself admits:

Readers who would like a fuller account, and a sympathetic account, which mine is not, should go to the sources


she doesn't present the opposing view particularly fairly, and I don't know enough about the subject to be able to make much judgement about one-sided polemic.

I am rather less convinced by her rejection of any possibility of generalizing or abstracting. Not only does she argue that large cities are an entirely different proposition from small cities, towns or any other kind of settlement (which may or may not be true, again, I don't know the field well enough to comment), but also that pretty much every aspect of town planning has to be judged on an individual, case by case basis. OK, so her ideal city is diverse, preferably even full of unique features, but as a scientist I find it very difficult to swallow an argument that does not proceed from properly validated evidence to a generalized theory. This attitude means that almost all her "evidence" is anecdotal, which I would regard as a weakness except that she is specifically arguing that only anecdotal (rather than, say, statistical) evidence is permissible when it comes to considering what makes a city successful.

Of course, I have to take Jacobs' word for both the situations she describes (as I have almost no first hand experience of any Great American Cities), and for her interpretations of these situations. But assuming that she's not completely distorting the situation, even allowing for the fact that her style of 'argument' is radically different from what I feel comfortable with, her views seem largely appealing.

But the style! She writes like a soap-box orator. Admittedly rather a good soap-box orator; for a couple of paragraphs she's amusing, accessible, witty, passionate, aphoristic and really got me on her side. Over several pages though, this starts to grate, and by the time I'd ploughed through 400 pages, it became downright irritating. I know I shouldn't judge works of non-fiction in literary terms, but I'm very much less likely to be convinced by an argument if its style alienates me to this extent.

Oh, the other reason D&L irritated me was dragging in inappropriate biological metaphors. Possibly I notice this more than a non-specialist might, but honestly, if you're trying to explain a technical subject to a lay audience, what on earth is the point of using metaphors from another technical discipline, and one that neither you nor your presumed audience know anything about?!

The book D&L most reminds me of is Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Like Dawkins, Jacobs presents a fairly radical view of her discipline, and presents it in a way that is very accessible to a non-specialist reader (who may well not know the conventional view that is being rejected). But, also like Dawkins', her witty polemic tends to degenerate into "Anyone who disagrees with me is obviously stupid, so yah boo". At least Jacobs doesn't try to drag religion into the argument.

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