Years ago, I stumbled across a new edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. The edition was celebrating that it was 50 years since the original publication of this modern day classic. I had only a vague concept what the book was like, but the edition was beautiful: small and compact in an unusual size, and an even more unusual colour: a sort of muted gold colour, very understated, very elegant.
I don’t think Jane Jacobs was like that at all, but that’s just me.
I think I thought something along the line of: “Ey, American cities. Might be good research for me” or just “Ey, I like American cities. Let’s buy it”. And then I put it in my bookshelves and went about my days, as happens, quite often, especially with books that “might be good research”. Anyway, I moved recently, so there’s a lot of shifting about of books, and there it was again, still classically beautiful.
This time I read it, and what a find it is! Not only is Jane Jacobs deliciously savage to all the smart men that had gone before her and everything they had ever written or thought or done in city planning, she’s also a great writer, and equally interesting, she seems instinctively likeable as a person. Her book is full of reflection of human life and cities; of a certain realistic but never pessimistic view of human beings and our, err, humanity. She has a acute sense of class and racial justice. I feel like she and I would probably see eye to eye on a number of topics, and I’m fascinating about all the things we might not agree on. I wonder what else she could have on besides city planning, and would have loved to hear her view on politics in general, or literature, or anywhere where there is taken for granted-truths and common sense ignored.
As always, I’m fascinating by how it feels like I am communicating with the author, even when she’s no longer alive, and decades after the wrote down the thoughts I am now reading. Some writers are just begging to be sat down over a cup of coffee or a beer or a drink (gin, definitely, in the case of Helen Hanff of 84, Charing Cross Road). And that, I think, is a great kind of immortality – befriending people long after they’ve gone. Albeit befriending them in a rather one sided-way.
Which writers have spoken to you lately?