cover image Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention

Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention

Ben Wilson. Doubleday, $32.50 (464p) ISBN 978-0-385-54346-0

Historian Wilson (Empire of the Deep) offers a sweeping survey of how the rise of cities over the past 6,000 years has shaped human history. Before 1800, Wilson notes, no more than 5% of the world’s population lived in “sizable urban areas,” but demographers project that by 2050 cities will be home to two-thirds of humanity. To examine “the people who settled in cities and the ways they found to cope with and survive the pressure cooker of urban life,” he profiles a diverse array of metropolises at critical moments in their history. Medieval Baghdad, for example, evokes the convergence of far-flung culinary traditions that has long been a trademark of large cities. The rush to build “bigger, better and more profitable” skyscrapers in early-20th-century New York City illustrates the powerful market forces at play in urban centers, while a portrait of post-WWII L.A. examines how white flight, the rise of suburbia, and globalization contributed to the modern-day phenomenon of the “supersized megacity.” Wilson also describes the “Paris Syndrome,” in which 19th-century tourists with romantic notions of the French capital were scandalized by the grime, overcrowding, and rudeness they encountered there. An amiable and well-informed tour guide, Wilson stuffs his account with intriguing arcana and analysis. Armchair travelers will be enlightened and entertained. (Nov.)