There is something special and magical about a good history of a great city which captures moments in time and allows the reader to witness and feel the hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations of an entire city. A good city history, while always remaining true to the facts, should bring the people of that city to life and allow modern readers the chance to imagine ‘what was it like…’ scenarios. When done well, histories of great cities can equal and rival any work of fiction.
Another important aspect of a great history of a city is the ability to connect an ancient or distant place to our modern identity, creating that ‘ah ha’ moment, when we say ‘so that’s where that idea comes from…’ A good example of this would be James Carroll’s Jerusalem, Jerusalem: how the ancient city ignited our modern world. Another excellent example of this theme is Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem: the biography.
History and myth, reality and the ideal, these elements are always entangled and can be found and leisurely unwound in Robin Waterfield’s, Athens: a history – from ancient ideal to modern city. For a more speculative take on what Athens could have been like in the time of Socrates, as well as what happened to Socrates himself, there is Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the search for the good life.
Entering the more modern period and moving west, there is Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris and Colin Jones’ Paris: biography of a city. And once in London, there are few others that capture it as Peter Ackroyd does in London: the biography and Thames: a sacred river.
Whatever city or mythical place you want to escape to, there is also a historical place where a writer’s imagination and research can take you. Bon voyage…