Anyone who has ever wandered through a (pre-pandemic) city has likely felt overstimulated at some point by the light, the noise, the crowds, the seemingly unbounded potential. Even when you have a destination, myriad diversions can waylay you — a sidewalk bookseller, a subway busker, an unfamiliar cafe.
Reading "Metropolis," Ben Wilson's ambitious history of the city writ large, is akin to confronting all this urban potential energy. Chapters are tied to specific times and places, but the scale of the undertaking and the interconnectedness of the globe mocks a truly linear approach.
Wilson, a British historian, instead hops from city to city and century to century, interweaving data, primary sources, anecdotes and the arts. He leans particularly heavily on the latter, citing everything from the Bible to "Blade Runner." It can be both effective, as with "The Epic of Gilgamesh" that introduces the Sumerian city of Uruk in 5000 B.C., and trite, as with the Gershwin-backed opening of Woody Allen's "Manhattan" that ushers in the Big Apple.
Most of the highlighted cities are big names — Athens, Alexandria, Baghdad, Paris, London. Their treatment is uneven, but the more novel approaches work better, such as the fascinating discussion of the public baths that starts the chapter on Rome. Less familiar locales are almost uniformly intriguing, such as the Harappa city of Mohenjo Daro, in present-day Pakistan, where "every household had a flush toilet in the third millennium BC."
A focus on European and U.S. cities, plus discussions of explorers, the Hanseatic League and the Dutch East India Company make the book feel at times like an overwritten high school textbook from the 1980s. Wilson does delve into Lagos and Malacca, but whole swaths of the world see their cities given only a stray paragraph or two. These include the Asian cities that made up the "urban heartland of the world" in the 1500s, Mesoamerica's "numerous sophisticated urban civilizations … [that existed] long before Europe had its first cities, "as well as Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo.
While these omissions could be a sacrifice to the book's tidy page count, the inclusion of nearly an entire chapter detailing Hilter's military rampage is a questionable choice. It's axiomatic that the Third Reich decimated cities from Warsaw to Moscow, but the rebuilding of those cities, arguably as relevant to their histories, is covered only cursorily, which makes the chapter feel uncomfortably close to prurient. Replacing such well-trodden World War II terrain with a look at Teotihuacán, Buenos Aires, Lhasa or any other ill-considered city would have been preferable.
Overall there is more to recommend "Metropolis" than to fault it, however, and Wilson has done an admirable job wrangling his topic down to an easily digestible size. And like any trip to the city, there will be spots you want to revisit, and others you're happy to never see again. It doesn't mean you shouldn't make the journey.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.
By: Ben Wilson.
Publisher: Doubleday, 464 pages, $32.50.