27 July, 2008

How to judge a book

A little show and tell.

As I said in a comment to my last post, reading the content is 'only a small part of what I want to do with a book'. I have no truck with the Platonic injunction never to judge a book by its cover, because it relies on a too easy separation of form and content, body and soul, to the discredit of the former. Just as one shudders to drink wine from a paper cup, or eat a fine steak with plastic cutlery, so one is ashamed to have one's Joyce or Shandy in an ugly classics edition, let alone on the screen. None of us here has a problem with the taste for fine volumes. But what constitutes a fine volume? If you are going to have a fine Aristotle or Cicero, a lavish eighteenth-century edition in gilt calf is undoubtedly the way forward, for those who can afford it. But what of those modern (or even pre-modern) authors who refuse to be manifest in gilt calf?

Myself, I favour the browned dustjackets, attractively limned in black and red, that flourished in the middle of the last century, especially in the 1940s. Here, for instance, is my 1948 copy of Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, which had previously appeared only in period pamphlet form, or else in buckram-bound Workses of 1833 and 1904:

The layout of the cover loosely imitates a standard Elizabethan title-page (though not Nashe's), gently modernized. Ayrton's image illustrates Nashe's account of the 'sweating sickness' that broke out in London in 1517: 'This sweating sicknes, was a disease that a man then might catch and never goe to a hot-house. Manie Masters desire to have such servants as would worke till they sweate againe, but in those dayes hee that sweate never wrought againe.' An apt reference, given the sudorific humidity currently plaguing London. Here, again, is a 1945 Phaidon edition of Burckhardt:

The materials are the same—cheap paper, red and black ink—but the effect is quite different, largely due to the crabbed inscription-capitals of the title, and to the Quattrocento woodcut. (Can anyone identify it?) Best of all in the genre, though, is undoubtedly this, sadly a reprint, but an authentic one, which I once picked up in the rare books department of the famous Strand bookstore, NYC:

I find it virtually impossible to dislike the Menippean contents of this volume, no matter how light the Surrealists' literary talents might have been. The design is a modernist masterpiece. How much variety can be obtained from these jackets, so simple and elegant. I wonder if their progenitor is the marvelous cover of the Kelmscott Chaucer. Certainly, there is not enough design any more: so many modern books, even when they've been well budgeted to look handsome, resort to photography or, worse, a famous painting in the adornment of their covers. Such recycling, at its best, can be clever, but like Eco's novels, it demonstrates the sad triumph of erudition over imagination.


Buying attractive editions of cherished books poses no problem. I feel less comfortable when I come across a work with beautiful covers but no interest between them. I have vacillated, in my collecting days, in my opinion on owning a book purely for its pretty face. I try to stand firm, the rationalist and Platonic collector. But now and then I have bowed to the lure and allure of physical beauty. For instance with books of poems, purchased despite my intense hostility, or at best indifference, to most poetry.

An undated (ca. 1900) George & Harrap edition of Browning's Pippa Passes, in limp plum suede with Nouveauish gilt and stamping—only three pounds last summer. The poem is infamous for its hilarious misuse of the word twat—amply covered by Language Log.

A 1958 New Directions paperback of Ferlinghetti which I 'borrowed' from my parents: the cover photograph is simply astounding, and the typography inside is a treat. Shame about the words ('Kafka's Castle stands above the world / like a last bastille / of the Mystery of Existence'). This was already the end of the line for modern poetry.

You notice the contradiction. At the beginning of this post I denied Plato and the strict separation of form from content, and yet now I happily disengage brilliant jackets from their puerile wearers. Wie gliet ich auß! Is it possible that the face could change my opinion of the mind?

I fear that if Crow, above in its 1970 first edition, were packaged differently, I might find it equally as tepid as the rest of Hughes' works. (And I pray that I never stumble upon a well-designed volume of Plath.) At times the adolescent sophisms sink to Ferlinghettiesque levels:
So finally there was nothing.
It was put inside nothing.
Nothing was added to it
And to prove it didn't exist
Squashed flat as nothing with nothing.
But then there are moments of amusement, or better sophisms, at least:
And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?

Crow realised there were two Gods—

One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.
It ain't poetry, but moments like this chime with that grotesque, Dubuffetian cover drawing by Hughes' buddy Leonard Baskin, so pathologically hostile to the prettiness of poetry-lovers: the antitype of Pippa Passes and A Coney Island. It is therefore fitting that the cover evokes the raw elegance of the old mid-century covers shown above, black and red on matte paper. We don't need subfusc suede or glamorous photography, it says; only a simple graphic. And that cover gives wings to the words, epea pteroenta, that struggle to sing inside.

I leave you with two other favourites in my collection, bad books with terrific jackets. And which two books could possibly be more different?

A bizarre tragedy by Queen Victoria's novelist of choice, in a 1937 Methuen edition, which I acquired from a Charing Cross vitrine solely on the strength of its cover. The spine features what seems to be an exploding atom rendered as the Japanese naval ensign: oddly prescient, in its symbolic way, of coming atrocities. The cover photograph—date uncertain—shows Clovelly High Street, which remains little changed to this day. The dedication is 'To those self-styled 'progressivists', who by precept and example assist the infamous cause of education without religion and who, by promoting the idea, borrowed from French atheists, of denying to the children in schools and elsewhere, the knowledge and love of God as the true foundation of noble living, are guilty of a worse crime than murder'. And so the novel itself is a work of sickly piety, a sermon that the new science is not, after all, incompatible with the old religion: that the Atom is God.

It is important to read these sorts of books now and then, mixed in with your modern classics. One needs to acquaint oneself with the clumsy and hard to understand—with the Sylvie and Brunos as well as with the Snarks and Alices. In this case I found the wormwood of the message sweetened the over-writing, and by the magical primitivism of the jacket design. And then, from the rear to the advance-guard, a French atheist and 'progressivist':

A 1958 Gaberbocchus first edition, in cute saffron cloth, of the well-known Exercices des Style in Barbara Wright's translation. You can pay 200 dollars for one of these on abebooks, but I picked up mine for 50p in a library sale at the University of York. The title-page is of some interest: it reads, for some reason in French, Exercices de Style par Raymond Queneau. Someone has crossed out the 'c' in Exercices and written 's' in red pen, likewise replacing 'de' with 'in' and 'par' by 'by'. The work itself is juvenile: a smirky gimmick that could have been, and probably was, tossed off in a couple of hours—but it has some charm as a period document, conjuring that noman's land after Surrealism but before the OuLiPo, when the French avant-garde were trying desparately to find their feet again. Again, the cover design, with its jazzy doodles and parodic portrait, is the perfect essence of Queneau's literary spirit.

Now, what are your favourite covers?

23 July, 2008

Garments of the saints

For Peony, and for Midshipman Easy.

A friend—Mr. Easy—returns from Africa. No, that is not right. He is not a friend: he is the friend. The friend who has known me since I was four, with whom, most of all, I grew up in adolescence, and whom I chose to be best man at my wedding. One of the reasons our friendship has survived so long is that it is founded less on shared interests, which, as I have learnt recently, are precarious to fortune, and more on shared experience—memory. He has a vociferous [sic] memory, in particular, for the history of my embarrassments, faux pas and non sequiturs, a memory which served him well in the composition of his wedding speech. And he is one of the very few people with whom I can reminisce with true pleasure, recalling times shared that were not like ours today: even with my wife, in our earliest moments together we were still as we are now, much the same. But with Easy, shared memory is sweeter, more poignant, because it makes us foreign to ourselves, and so just a little closer to each other.

When I see him he is lounging on the sofa, his expensivesque loafers and striped socks dangling over the edge. He shows me his new toy: a device for reading electronic books. I forget which model it is. He has already tried to convince me to buy a mobile phone and an iPod. The very thought of interesting me in one of these e-books amuses him. Later at my house, he gestures at my bookshelves, and says, Just think, you could get rid of all of these and have them at your fingertips, on a reader like mine. I give him a look.

Books are, of course, tactile, beautiful objects. That alone is enough of a reason to shun the grey digital box. But there is something else, too. I find sinister the thought of this box, with all its gigabytes, claiming ten-minute dominion over a world fashioned by patient hands, for thousands of years, and still unfinished. The box has an insouciant finality about it. The grim humour of this is related to that moment of the new Pixar film, WALL-E, when the human of the future, a grotesquely obese and over-satisfied creature, accustomed to passive voice-interaction with a computer screen, is handed a book and doesn't know how to work it. Similarly, the scene from Short Circuit that everyone remembers is the one in which the robot breezes a whodunnit in ten seconds. I think many of us feel, deep down, that reading should be hard. Reading should be hard because its rewards are so great: because it makes worlds of men.


The highlight of Frances Yates's famous monograph on the ars memoria—apart from her admission that she has no Arabic—is that page where the dull classicist mnemotechnics of Cicero's imitators give way to the freewheeling fantasy of the Neoplatonic speculators. This, possibly, is the money-quote:
It is because he believes in the divinity of man that the divine Camillo makes his stupendous claim of being able to remember the universe by looking down upon it from above, from first causes, as though he were God. In this atmosphere, the relationship between man, the microcosm, and the world, the macrocosm, takes on a new significance. The microcosm can fully understand and fully remember the macrocosm, can hold it within his divine mens or memory.
When I first read the book, it was this thought that deglazed my eyes. (By contrast, my eyes remained glazed throughout Paolo Rossi's Logic and the Art of Memory.) Man, by remembering, and especially by arranging his memories in the correct order, would not only grow in knowledge: he would actually take the universe into his head and thus become a microcosm, a Godlet, containing multitudes. Even the atheist can take something from this.


The e-book is an abuse, an aberration, because it is an insentient microcosm. It is a parody of Camillo's theatre, in which microchips memorize and arrange information in lieu of a defunct deity—an ape of God. Its words are insubstantial and too easily manipulable. Whereas the bookshelf presents a man with pieces ready to be put together, the well-stocked e-book presents him with the work already done. I, the Luddite, still want to preserve memory as a human faculty, imperfect though it might be, for it is memory that gives colour and shape to our experience. The Platonist Novalis wrote, with his usual knack for the quotable, 'As the garments of the saints still retain wondrous powers, so is many a word sanctified through some splendid memory, and has become a poem almost on its own.' The box robs words of their sanctity, for the words in the box are all digested, and therefore all equal. You can never make a discovery in an e-book, just as you cannot on Wikipedia: nothing is ever lost. But it is the threat and actuality of loss that makes memory—and thus reading—worthwhile.

[Update 11/02/09: James Ashley comments.]

14 July, 2008

Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe

I come to the town of Nancy. It is a place of quiet souls, like my older self, Ulysse, not at all the sort I have been accustomed to meeting on my travels, the sort who would have found Achille, my younger years, far more to their liking.

Stanislas, the King, is a man of contentment. He knows how to gaze: an art, I fear, we have all too often forgotten. I have spoken to him on more than one occasion. He treats me with great respect, for my father was among those brave of Saint-Malo who fought for him in Danzig. From his pedestal he is willing to provide informations, the result of observation, or of private thought; and indeed, he has had time to think, to become. The cursus of the sun affords him the opportunity for every kind of vision: because he faces north, the glare never blinds him, except, of course, for the scintillae of windows, coated or shuttered, burning in reflection. The shadows, always quite sombre, begin long, grow short, and grow long again, as the works of history. But the shadow of his index, pointing out the north, remains always the same length.

We discuss posterity. That devil Diderot, I mention, said that posterity for the philosophe was the same as the afterlife for the religious man. We who have an afterlife—must needs we have posterity also? Ah yes, says the King, who was a friend of Diderot. It transpires that he has composed an essay on the subject, which he recites to me in a stertorous voice from his plinth. It is a thirst for posterity that makes us perform miracles to humanity. His words swell:
That which we desire for our descendants, Nature and Reason make us desire for ourselves. Down here we live, if I might put it thus, two sorts of lives: the one we have in common with the animals—it is only a simple vegetation, it begins again each day, it makes us last for years, we hold on to it without merit, and we should have as little regret to lose it as we had to acquire it. But there is another life more essential to man, that makes him appear with éclat on the world stage, or that at least makes it pleasant by a sweet and beneficent humour, by a scrupulous probity, a constant application to all the duties of society. This man lives in the esteem of others, and his life, for the advantages he derives from it, is more precious to him than that by which he simply exists, and through which he would be no more than a creature destined to consume the fruits of the earth, a breathing automaton who, forever useless, would be in effect buried even before his death.
I can certainly appreciate his sentiment. All my years I struggled not only to exist, but to live, and moreover to be remembered with fondness and admiration. Stanislas enjoys posterity here in Nancy and perhaps in Poland, but not elsewhere. He has been subsumed by the currents of history. I myself retain a little fame, but the memories of my glory are swiftly fading.


I have petitioned the King to release me. I would find my tomb again, and remember the sweep and stave of my great mother. Nancy is too far from the waves! When I brought my case before him he would only point. The north! Oui, le Nord, mais aussi l'Ouest, n'est-ce pas? He is not generous with words today. Just then the sun turns in its course, and for the first time the shadow of his index is distended along the square. It is an auspicious dawn.

By late morning I arrive in Verdun-sur-Meuse. There is a great wailing among my comrades, as if the last shocks of a catastrophe. Ils ne passeront pas, said Nivelle—or was it Petain?—and so, ILS N'ONT PAS PASSÉ. Death did conquer man; and man, death. Le Mort-Homme, a greater king even than Stanislas, was already here, a little colline near the town, before the War broke out; that I have learnt in my travels. I am familiar with him, of course. I have met him many times, only to evade him. Ah, loss! In the future some exquisite critic will write,
Chateaubriand-Achille should have died in Combourg, when he tried in vain to commit suicide, or in Rennes, when his comrade Saint-Riveul was massacred before his eyes, taking the place which should have been his, or in Le Havre, when he was spared at the last minute by a shipwreck that should have been fatal, or in Thionville, where the manuscript of Atala stopped the bullet that should have struck his heart, or even in London, where he was only an outcast, promised death. . . This Achille watched in sympathy the Chateaubriand-Ulysse who sought to regain Ithaca in 1800, and who, from career to career, found himself in the end growing old, with everyone else, under the rule of usurpers, and reduced to memories.
Now I am doomed to remaining an old man, an Ulysse, for eternity. But there has been plenty for me. I did venture into the land with my winnowing-oar, and now I am returning to the sea.

Afternoon by the rocks of the shore near Cognac. Here, by the land we call 'Groies', full of chalk and clay, walk Achille and Ulysse, the young man and the old, the cut short and the livelong, competing in posterity. Stanislas had changed his mood after his first discourse; in his second address he had said—
Does history not teach us that dreadful chasms, in which the monuments and stories of our times are swallowed up forever, yawn open before those ages in which we flatter ourselves to live by our reputation? All has perished, as far as the memory of most of the nations that precede ours. The chain binding their time to ours has been smashed by floods, earthquakes, violent tremors that have knocked over the universe. All totters, all ends, all is lost in the immense spaces of eternity—and one man, one simple atom, the chance product of the nothingness that begat him, flatters himself that he might bear his name to the final extremities of Time, which has no limits at all!
After his peroration I teased him—I said he should stop reading Cicero before bedtime. If I was Scipio, he was my Manius Manilius. But the King would not be teased, and remained solemn. I still think of his words. We have our afterlifes, and perhaps he and I should be content with a diminishing posterity.

The most marvelous thing about the Grand Bé, other than its name, is the smell, its scents and aromas of hyssop and uncut thyme, and bergamot, and the almost incessant petrichor, and the smell of great noise and tumult, quieted, a romantic caesura facing out into the unknown. When I first arrived at Saint-Malo from Le Havre, just after the revolution, I had cause to remark on the divisions and misfortunes of France: the châteaux were burnt or abandoned, and their owners vanished. The place retains even now the same mood of ruination. But now, as I return again, it is the most brilliant of dusks, and the grand cour of the heaven is full of birds, coming from nowhere to swoop and glide over the edge of the black rocks, to be transmuted into waves. Les ondes, rondes, surrondent, rebondent, surabondent, sarabandent.

Here, where I was born, I am again almost among the living. François, René. The whole world is speaking of my life. And neither am I alone now. Maclou is here with me, the great traveller, who, they say, has seen the Isles of the Blest and the Paradise of Birds. His pockets are overflowing with precious stones. I have no pockets. It must be the perquisite of a saint.

And here again, by my six feet of sand, I vividly recall the ceremony in which I left. On ensevelissait souvent les morts fameux au bord de la mer. My friend M. Ampère, the son of the celebrated scientist, related the event to his confrères and colleagues in the Académie.
When we had arrived on the beach, shuffling between the ramparts and the sea towards the funeral rock, the magnificence of this unequalled mourning, the incredible poetry of the spectacle, just for a moment veiled the sadness of death beneath the pomp and the glory, and the funeral assumed the character of a Christian apotheosis. At the foot of the Grand Bé, the coffin was raised up by the marines and carried to the top, against a gust of wind like a tempest—the ocean's supreme caress of that man who had so loved the noise of the waves and the winds.
I found it an admirable tribute. It sealed my death, as my life, in the ears of his listeners, as it will in the eyes of his readers. The sea is the source of mythology, as the ocean, which tides twice a day, is that abyss of which Jehovah said, You will go no further. And so in the face of the sea, endlessly ruffled in detail, but perfect in smoothness from horizon to horizon, I can think only of posterity. I have, I believe, bequeathed myself appropriately.


All our life is spent circling our tomb; our various maladies are the winds that approach us from the harbour. I was near death from the moment I entered the world; the roar of the waves, whipped up by a squall heralding the autumn equinox, prevented my cries being heard. There is never a day that I do not see again in my mind the rock on which I was born, and the chamber in which my mother inflicted life upon me.

Tout fut difficile dans ma vie. I long wanted to be buried here, and wrangled incessantly to have it. They came to me as I lay gasping, finally, and petitioned me—What words will you have upon your tomb? I brushed them away. Let me think on the matter. Give me two days. And so I considered the problem. What words could carry the weight of a whole life? For the first time in my life, I, a wit, a brazen pen, a great doyen of the language, could not muster a single phrase. What could be more ironic, than that I should fail to devise my own epitaph? They returned in two days. M. Chateaubriand, what will you have upon your tomb? I looked up from my circles, and said, Give me four days. They went away, barking and mooksing. I shut my eyes tight and toyed with abstracts—Liberty, and Poetry; Immortality and Eternity. It was no use. Le Mort-Homme was mocking himself of me. I scribbled down some rhymes and rearranged them into some semblance of a poem. Gribouilleur. In disgust I could only fling the wretched papers across the room for the servants to tidy up. What words could possibly carry the weight of a whole life? My window, which opened west over the gardens of the Foreign Missions, was open: it was six in the morning, and the moon I could see was pale and gravid, sinking over the spire of the Invalides, scarcely reveiled by the first golden ray from the East. Finally those cagotz and magotz descended upon me, carrion birds, and demanded of me, with the most appalling obsequy, Grand Seigneur Chateaubriand, what will you have graven on your tomb? All I could pronounce, by now, and with a grave laughter already on my lips, was: A week longer. The next morning I was dead.


[Update: The charming Peony comments, kindly. I would like to take this opportunity to assure her that in conversation I am not in the habit of dropping anecdotes about Cicero's Dream of Scipio or Chateaubriand's (fictional) deathbed—some things are best left for the desk with its array of books, real or virtual—and that, were I to manage a salon, or even a memory palace, she would be most welcome.]

10 July, 2008


A friend sends me a link to an article in the Scientific American, entitled 'An Unethical Ethicist?' I try to read through the intricate morality tale, but all I can think about is the word, ethicist. Why does it stick in my craw?


The word's suffix groups it with physicist, geneticist, classicist, historicist, lyricist, publicist—the OED lists 133 in total, but the others are either compounds or much more obscure. This group, however, is illusory: or rather, it consists of two meaningful groups—those words that derive from nouns and adjectives in –ic, and those that derive from nouns in –ics. Thus: lyric, public, historic, on one side, and physics, genetics, classics, and ethics on the other. Here it will be worth quoting the OED at length, on –ic and –ics:
In English, such words of this class as were in use before 1500 had the singular form, and were usually written, after French, –ique, –ike, as arsmetike, magike, musike, logike (–ique), retorique, mathematique (–ike, –ik), mechanique, economique, ethyque (–ik); this form is retained in arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric (though logics has also been used). But, from the 15th c., forms in –ics (–iques) occur as names of treatises; and in the second half of the 16th c. this form is found applied to the subject-matter of such treatises, in mathematics, economics, etc. From 1600 onward, this has been the accepted form with names of sciences, as acoustics, conics, dynamics, ethics, linguistics, metaphysics, optics, statics, or matters of practice, as æsthetics, athletics, economics, georgics, gymnastics, politics, tactics.
The formation of agent-nouns in –ic is predictable: arithmetic, logic, magic, music and rhetoric all have agents in –ician (although we also have rhetor, straight from the Greek). But –ics is unpredictable. Mathematics has –ician. Economics has not economicist but economist. Linguistics, likewise, has linguist, although curiously, the OED offers linguistician ('One who is versed in linguistics') as opposed to linguist ('One who is skilled in the use of languages', 'A student of language; a philologist', but not a student of linguistics). Athletics has athlete, and gymnastics gymnast. Georgics, of course, has nothing.

But hold on a moment; let's look at these groupings. Are we really to say that 'æsthetics, athletics, economics, georgics, gymnastics, politics, tactics' go together as 'matters of practice', as opposed to 'sciences'? Surely aesthetics and politics sit neatly next to ethics, just as economics fits next to linguistics. The streamlining of categories is beginning to look like a mess.

Still worse when we examine types of agents themselves. The politician is the man who practices politics, while the politicist—there are citations old and new in the OED—is the man who studies it. But the aesthetician, like the aestheticist, is the man who studies aesthetics; the practicer is the aesthete, which in turn goes formally with athlete. Metaphysics has been studied both by metaphysicians and, less recently, by metaphysicists. The criteria for –icist as against –ician appears bound neither to form nor to function. Rules collapse.


Before I began thinking about this in detail, ethicist stuck in my craw because its suffix seemed to give it a legitimacy as a technical discipline, like physicist and geneticist. But the whole point about ethics, to me, is that it is utterly lacking such an apparatus, despite the efforts of generations. To say 'I'm a physicist' is to identify not just your profession, but your body of knowledge—your scientia. But to say 'I'm an ethicist' is to identify only a profession: your body of knowledge can be no different to that of another. The very notion of an ethicist seemed, and I think still seems, incoherent to me: at best he could be reduced to a policy-maker, a jurist, a counsellor, or a bloviator. Hence the Wiki list of ethicists is really just a list of thinkers, or even more blandly, of people.

If we consult the OED on ethicist, we are in for a surprise. The first thing it says is '= ETHICIAN'. Indeed, ethician is attested earlier, from 1889, whereas ethicist appears only in 1891. French, by way of comparison, seems more comfortable with éthicien than with éthiciste, although the Trésor lists neither. Ethician seemed to fit better with aesthetician and metaphysician. We all have our ethics, our aesthetics and our metaphysics; none has validity as an objective scientia. And so one wants the morphology to reflect the conceptual agreement: one wants a stricter distinction between –icist and –ician.

But, damn it, there are mathematicians, physicians, technicians and all the rest. Language betrays me. It always does.

06 July, 2008

On Wimbledon

Today I found myself in the disconcerting position—disconcerting because, I think, historically unique—of being alone among my friends, with the exception of my wife, to take any interest in the sport. Normally, I'm the one who'd rather read a book than watch men in shorts. This will not surprise you. But the tennis, my god! Did you see it? They're saying it's the greatest tennis final ever. I haven't a clue about that, having watched comparatively little raquetry in my life. But there is no question it was a great match. I spent the last hour of it, with Nadal tossing away match-points like sweet-wrappers, in a state of increasing tension. Tennis is the ideal sport for the individualist: each match is like a scholastic disputatio, each drop and volley a stinging syllogism. You can see the whole of a match, weigh and measure every motion made. Give football, with its bluster of blues and reds, to those drunk on collective experience.

I was rooting for Federer; Lily, advocata diaboli, for 'The Spaniard', as the BBC commentators kept calling him. I was on the Swiss side for two reasons. The first, and more superficial, is that his game is so much the more beautiful. As Paul Weaver put it in the Guardian,
For the first two sets [which Nadal won] it rained on poets, and on aesthetes, stylists and all those with a keen sense of the refined.
Sure, Nadal had the power, accuracy and determination: but Federer was making his opponent do things I've never even seen. By the end of the fifth set, the dazzling Swiss sprezzatura had peeled off, finesse was out of the window, except of course for the continuing rattle of aces, and Federer, like Nadal, was human again. But my choice of side was founded on more than aesthetics. I wanted Federer to win because I need to believe that some things are fixed and permanent. I am uncomfortable with the Heraclitean flux of sporting rivalries. No, I want to witness a palace outlast its assailants, and I want to witness records broken, history. I want to be living in a historic age, an age of greatness, of six consecutive wins, not an age of decline, such as that proffered by all the front pages. Mine is a patriotism of time, not country. Nadal's victory was the announcement of inevitable decay, of death and rebirth, the hounds at the gate: all things must pass. What could be more humiliating?

02 July, 2008


Four years ago, the English historian Tristram Hunt signed up as a visiting professor at Arizona State University, Phoenix. In Fall 2004 he taught an Urban History 598 with three other lecturers; the reading list is a delight, moving from modern urban analysts—Robert E. Lang, Kenneth Jackson and Dolores Hayden—to Walter Benjamin on Paris, and Asa Briggs on Victorian London. (Hunt did the London stuff, as one would expect from his book Building Jerusalem, published that year.) In February 2005, he wrote a longing missive back home to the Guardian, describing his new home with expressions like 'master-planned communities', 'the brave new world of exurbia', 'McMansions', 'big-box discount stores', 'boomburbs' and 'technoburbs'. He quotes David Brooks, the conservative pundit best known for coining the word 'bobo': in Phoenix 'there are no centres, no recognisable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity'. Only Brooks didn't write that; he wrote that in Phoenix 'there are no centers, no recognizable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity'. Such are the practices of the copy-editor. Hunt adds to the picture:
It is a polycentric universe where the rhythms of the day are oriented around drives to the shopping mall, housing subdivision, gym, church or work. There is no downtown or inner-city; few civic landmarks or historic signifiers. Through the highways of Phoenix's boomburbs, Walgreens follows Burger King follows Kmart [sic] follows Starbucks.
Hunt is horrified. No marks, no signs; just roads and commerce—call that a city? The force of his article is to implore the British government not to go down the same route. He notes, with equal horror, being a good New Labour boy, that it was places like Phoenix that handed the 2004 election to Bush, and also that these areas are the fastest-growing:
In a movement known as 'natalism', those decamping to the zoomburbs are choosing to buck the US birthrate by conscientiously raising large families.
Boomburbs? Zoomburbs? From where was this baroque language? At a guess, Phil VanderMeer or one of the other faculty introduced Hunt to Dolores Hayden's little 2004 bibelot, The Field Guide to Sprawl, in which she identifies a number of the classic features of American suburbia, and assigns them their latest pop-culture buzzwords. Here we get McMansions and big boxes, boomburbs and zoomburbs. A boomburb, according to Hayden, is 'a rapidly growing urban-sized place in the suburbs', and she quotes the original source of the term, a 2001 report by Robert Lang and Patrick Simmons for Fannie Mae: 'places with more than 100,000 residents that are not the largest cities in their respective metropolitan areas and that have maintained double-digit rates of population growth in recent decades'. A zoomburb, she says, is a 'place growing even faster than a boomburb'. Technoburb is not here, but comes instead from Robert Fishman's 1987 study, Bourgeois Utopias: 'By technoburb I mean a peripheral zone, perhaps as large as a county, that has emerged as a viable socioeconomic unit.'

I think I like boomburb. It's a bit kitschy, for sure. But I've always found suburb to be unsatisfying as a trochee: sub- lacks punch as a stressed syllable. (Whereas suburbia is much more successful.) Boomburb rectifies suburb with good old-fashioned American moxie. (And boomburbia would be terrible.)

Two weeks ago Hunt wrote a piece for the Times on the current presidential election, contrasting the urban environments of Chicago (Obama) and Phoenix (McCain). Clearly, he is still reeling from the nightmare of the desert, and is fresh out of ideas. Thus, he resorts to self-plagiarism. He quotes David Brooks: in Phoenix 'there are no centres, no recognisable borders to shape a sense of geographic identity'. (Only Brooks didn't write that, etc.) Hunt adds:
It is a polycentric universe where the rhythms of the day are orientated around drives to the shopping mall, gym, church or work. In contrast to the great railway stations and art galleries of Chicago, there isn't much downtown or inner city; few civic landmarks or historic signifiers. Through Phoenix's boomburbs, Wallgreen's [sic] follows Burger King follows K-Mart follows Starbucks. I lived for a year in this exurban terrain of freeways and drive-thrus and at least once a week I would get lost trying to find my home through the sprawling, anonymous cityscape.
Does this sound familiar? He quotes the same Kerry statistics, the same figures from Steve Sailer, as he did three and a half years ago. He tells us again that 'those decamping to the zoomburbs are choosing to buck the US birthrate by consciously raising large families'. Only now he wants to say that Obama's got to watch out, and that whoever wins the presidency is going to have to court the vote of this conservative heartland, its natalist population pullulating and its myriad zoomburbs and strip-malls proliferating.
For all his love of metropolitan, liberal Chicago, it is grumpy old John McCain's Phoenix that represents the psephological future. And sooner or later, Mr Obama will have to join those tens of thousands of his Illinois compatriots swapping the icy winds of downtown Chicago for the sprawling embrace of metropolitan Phoenix, “Valley of the Sun”.
(He used the word 'psephological', or its variant, in his 2005 piece too. Hunt has an exquisitely small sesquipedalium.) This is interesting for a number of reasons. It is sort of a return to the climatic determinism beloved by Herder and his students in the nineteenth century. Back then, they said that Northern Europeans had a hard, harsh language, due to the cold, whereas Mediterraneans sang and danced gaily, with the rippling music of their Italian and Spanish, due to the heat. The heat, the sprawl—now that's the future. We are witnessing, again and again, and in anguish, the last half-hour of Annie Hall.


It is difficult for me not to feel some sympathy for Huntie. He and I are quite alike: young, handsome, bourgeois Londoners—his father went to my school, and for all I know he did too—who went to live in Phoenix for a year or three. I shared Hunt's horror of the low-rise and featureless monotony.

And Hunt is right to allude to the boomburbs and zoomburbs. All that not only applies to Phoenix, it comes from Phoenix. In 1984 Chris Leinberger wrote a planning document for the Phoenix region, advocating 'higher-density urban village clusters that mix high-rise offices, multifamily housing, and major retail stores.' In 1987 the Washington Post journalist Joel Garreau picked up on this term, 'urban village', and in 1991 he came out with his own version, the 'Edge City'. He describes its development across America:
First, we moved our homes out past the traditional idea of what constituted a city. This was the suburbanization of America, especially after World War II. Then we wearied of returning downtown for the necessities of life, so we moved our marketplaces out to where we lived. This was the malling of America, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, we have moved our means of creating wealth, the essence of urbanism—our jobs—out to where most of us have lived and shopped for two generations. That has led to the rise of Edge City.
In the chapter on Phoenix, he writes:
Phoenix is the first municipality in America to recognize formally, for planning purposes, that it is made up of a constellation of Edge Cities, locally referred to as "urban villages." It is logical that Phoenix came to this conclusion early. The urban village referred to as "downtown" historically never amounted to much. As recently as World War II it was the trade and government center for a rural area that did not add up to more than 185,000 people. Even as the Phoenix area erupted to an urban population of two million, downtown did not become grand. Two other cores with better parking and fewer derelicts grew larger. One was the area north, along Central Avenue, called "uptown." The other was the posh area along Camelback Avenue near the Frank Lloyd Wright-styled Arizona Biltmore. In fact, compared with older, Eastern metros, there is no sharp distinction between downtown Phoenix and those other centers. They all look and function like Edge Cities.
Garreau also discusses in this chapter another insidious feature of the Edge City, namely the 'shadow governments', powerful but unaccountable—homeowners' associations and the Salt River Project. Garreau concludes that the Edge City, which congeals out of sprawl, is actually a return to urban density, albeit in disparate pockets. As a description of a new urban pattern, the book was a hit. But not everyone was convinced.

One such person was Robert Lang, who helped to define 'boomburb' in 2001. In 2003 he published his book Edgeless Cities, arguing that most of the suburbia and exurbia around metropolitan cores was still low-density—an 'edgeless city' with no clear borders. He classified various important American cities by their distributions of office-space, citing Chicago as an example of a core-dominated, low-sprawl city, and Miami as high-sprawl, a continuous edgeless city. Phoenix, mysteriously, is left off the table.

But in 2007, Lang's Boomburbs, co-published with Jennifer LeFurgy, brought Phoenix right back onto the map. Here we find a thrilling list of failed buzzwords for the new, barely-classifiable suburban developments: anticity, city à la carte, disurb, outtown, penturbia, rururbia, servurb, slurb, stealth city, and my own favourite, net of mixed beads. But of Phoenix:
It is ironic that there are so few edge cities in Phoenix, considering that this is the region where the edge city concept began. . . While downtown Phoenix has a small office space market for such a big city, its buildings are much taller and larger (at an average 155,104 square feet) than the area's boomburb offices (with an average of 51,531 square feet). In fact, downtown Phoenix's offices are almost three times the size of those in Scottsdale, the boomburb with the largest average building size.
Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert are thus boomburbs; however, they are not high-density 'edge cities', as Garreau thought—he labelled Scottsdale as an edge city, Tempe and Mesa-Chandler as 'emerging' edge cities—but more akin to the edgeless, low-density sprawl characterised in Lang's earlier book. Mesa, in fact, would probably qualify as a zoomburb, as it is the biggest boomburb in the country, having outgrown Minneapolis and St. Louis. (Wiki counts it the 37th largest city in America.) And yet it has 'no centres, no recognisable borders'. As Hunt experienced, and as I did, you can drive straight from Tempe to Mesa without noticing any hiatus.

The boomburb—or boomburg, as it is delightfully typoed in an even more recent article—is big business, and it is specifically a feature of the West, or rather the Sun Belt stretching from California to Florida. Lang explains the phenomenon in terms of free, unincorporated land, and the problems of water regulation, as with the Salt River Project in Phoenix: 'Big incorporated cities are better positioned by buy water rights, providing an incentive for suburbs to join a large incorporated city.' And the sprawl of boomburgs between two cities leads to linear 'corridors', such as the Sun Corridor between Phoenix and Tucson. (Michael Crow, my old whipping-boy, drools vacuously about this here.)

So Hunt has applied the right label to Phoenix. And his British readership will be justified in its inevitable recoil from the image he paints. Garreau, despite his own intense dislike of the new suburbia, is forced to admit its massive appeal to the American man. He quotes Jack Linville:
In Paris, you've got roughly six million people living on maybe a hundred square miles, an area that would fit inside Loop 610 here. We have about 200,000 living inside that area. . .

The people in the United States are not going to live the way the people in Paris live. They will not live in a thousand-square-foot apartment and raise a family and go out and get the loaf of bread and the jug of wine and walk down the street and live their whole lives within one square mile. That is not the way Americans live. They have a different level of freedom, a different level of expectations. There's still a lot of Daniel Boone left in America. I don't know what the people in Paris want. But what they have is a very very small amount of space that is theirs, and a lot of public amenities. What we have is a huge amount of space that is ours and that we control, and very little in public amenities. We have much more individual life styles.
London, of course, could easily stand in for Paris. To Hunt, to me, this is awful. To Linville and David Brooks, it is wonderful. My wife, used to the authentic, old-fashioned suburbia of Fairfax, Virginia—with its archetypal Edge City of Tysons Corner—often remarks on the lack of space in our flat in Hornsey. (Hunt, incidentally, lives in our borough.) But that's what you give up when you want, no, need, to live on an organic, pedestrian-based street-plan like this:

Rather than a hierarchical, motor-based plan like this in Mesa:

Space is what you give up when you need to shop at corner-stores, or at worst High Street chains accessible by foot and public transport, rather than at giant Walmarts accessible only by car. The idea of these 'individual life styles'—and Hunt echoes this in his conception of Phoenix as 'profoundly individualistic terrain'—is frankly meaningless to me. Brooks has a similar fantasy that centrifugal movement to the suburbs and boomburbs represents a great, imaginative leap into the unknown, and that all the glittering consumerist attractions—the 'ampersand magazines', the faith healers, the mediaevalist or faux Wild West community names, the theme restaurants—are evidence that in America, 'material things are shot through with enchantment'. Nothing could be further from the individualist. Everywhere, the imagination is pre-packaged.

At the end of his Building Jerusalem—I read the chapter on Victorian London, and found lots of nice quotes but learnt very little about Victorian London—Hunt cries: 'Vibrant, living cities depend crucially upon people residing in their centres. The challenge for the former Victorian cities is to ensure that when singles become couples and have children they do not instinctively fly to the suburbs.' This was written before he went and saw for himself what happens when people instinctively fly to the suburbs: 'suburb' becomes inadequate to describe the result. At least, not in the sense that Hornsey is a suburb.


But Hunt, at least, can stop worrying about the forthcoming election, or so it seems. Despite being an urbanist, and despite having perused the glossy photos of Hayden's Field Guide, he still has a shallow notion of voting demographics.

Rather than parrot statistics already three years out of date, he should have attended Robert Lang's May 21 lecture in Paris on US voting trends. Or at least, like myself, looked at the online powerpoint. Lang examined the 2002 and 2006 mid-terms, and found a different story from Hunt's. He discovered that the 'megapolitans'—the huge cities composed of edged and edgeless boomburbs—were swinging Democrat. The denser a suburb became, and the more Hispanic, the more liberal its voter. Even in 2004, Bush's victories were narrowest in the fastest-growing boomburbs: Riverside, Dallas, and Phoenix. Lang told me by email that the 'booming states' of Virginia, Nevada and Colorado are 'turning Democratic as they grow'. Arizona itself would turn, he thought, if it weren't McCain's home turf. What Hunt fails to realise is that although the Republican territories are growing, their variety of growth is changing their political orientation. We'll have to wait and see what happens in November.