The continuous city

Last week, Cory Doctorow posted to Boing Boing his thoughts on Peter Ackroyd’s book London: The Biography, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while.

Doctorow discusses the idea of people, books, and cities as continuities–things that shift form, develop, grow, recede, and change while still remaining the same. I realized as a young teenager that the stuff of which I am composed had all died and been replaced many times over. I’m smarter than I used to be but dumber than I will be.

Likewise, books. Not only does a particular book’s voyage from idea to bound volume morph slowly from one stage to the next, but that same book then acquires a body of commentary and criticism that shapes and is shaped by the book itself. And, as Doctorow also points outs, what we call “book” has changed many times over the past centuries–tablet, scroll, codex, e-text, audiobook, etc.–without changing the essence of what a book is and how it communicates with readers.

Cities, too, but here I’ll simply quote Doctorow, who says it better than I could:

London is continuous. It’s not a place — its borders have shifted and shifted again over thousands of years. It’s not a race of people — its inhabitants have changed in individual identity and culture so many times that the culture and ethnicity of London 2004 is nearly completely different from London 0000. It’s not a collection of architecture, or a map of roads, or a political system, for all of these have changed and changed and changed. London isn’t even its name: London’s had many names over the years.

London is a practice: London is what Londoners are doing right now, which is informed by, midwifed by, descended from what Londoners were doing yesterday. London is what Londoners do.

I’m now reading Gotham, and I think it’ll be interesting to read it through the lens of the continuous New York.

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