With fall upon us (and with the hopes for California rainfall increasing), we’ve reached a time of year when I rethink my reading list, setting new priorities for the knowledge I still hope to absorb before the end of the year and remotivating myself to find more time for reading.
Sitting in an office surrounded by bookcases, or perhaps I should describe it as sitting at a desk in the middle of a library, I’m not looking for more books to acquire. But I’m always seeking help in sorting through the books I already own and in making good decisions about scarce reading time.
Thus, I was interested when someone in an internet chat asked StrongTowns founder Chuck Marohn for the five books that he’d recommend for urbanist reading. As he was considering his response, I began my own list. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs, “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck, and “Suburban Nation” by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Speck occupied the top three spots, with a bevy of other contenders jockeying for the last two openings.
But Marohn surprised me. He responded that he generally avoided books on land planning, preferring instead to do his reading in the broader field of human history and civilization.
Upon consideration, although I won’t yet set aside my favorite urbanist tomes, Marohn’s reading approach makes a lot of sense. As I written before, cities are the fundamental unit of civilization, the places where much of what we treasure in our shared history took root. (I don’t intend to demean those whose distant ancestors spent their lives tilling the soil in remote fields, but even those folks relied on cities to sell their crops and to learn news from the wider world.)
Thus, a reading list that focuses on how civilizations were formed and on the forces that continue to affect civilization today would include insights about the causes that shaped the cities of the past and about the city forms that we should be seeking for productive societies moving forward, both of which tie us back to urbanism.
The five books that Marohn suggested were from only two authors, “Black Swan” and “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, “Collapse”, and “The World until Yesterday” by Jared Diamond. All five books were already on my shelves, although my reading in them has been more scattered than perhaps it should have been.
(Before anyone feels a need to make this comment, I’m aware that Diamond is often criticized for being seduced by confirmation biases. I partially concur with the concern, and would argue that the same criticism can sometimes be directed at Taleb. However, I’d also argue that their fields of investigation can barely be pursued without stumbling into confirmation biases and that there is still much of value in their books even with allowances made.)
As I await the first storm of winter, my plan had been to reread “Walkable City”. However, with Marohn’s reading list thinking now disclosed, I think I’ll instead turn toward finishing “Black Swan”. Either way, I’m sure to gather more information useful to building good cities.
In my next post, I’ll go back to a topic I’ve recently touched a couple of times, the challenge of how to insert useful public input into the land-use planning and approval process. I have an idea to offer. I won’t call it a proposal. It’ll be more like a thought exercise, intended to elicit better and more well-formed ideas from others.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)