So this year I’ve been trying (with only partial success) to publish a review of a CYOA book on the 5th of each month. “CYOA book” here may be a paper book or a Kindle ebook with links. This month, though, the CYOA book I originally planned to cover turned out to be enough of a non-starter that I didn’t want to post a whole review just griping about it.
Imaginary Cities is a collection of short chapters about city plans and city concepts. It discusses utopian and dystopian visions, cities imagined for other times and environments than our own, the cities we think other cultures would build and the cities that will suit the culture we hope one day to have. It pulls in the writing of architects and urban planners, historians and fantasists and philosophers. It is, among other things, a vibrant celebration of world-building:
Everything echoes. Inventing the ship and the shipwreck leads to the invention of lighthouses, judas-lights and pirate-plunderers, laws on flotsam and jetsam, the Sirens of Homeric myth, the immrams of Irish verse, Ahab and Prospero. (82)
Imaginary Cities is obviously inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, from which there is a quotation on the first page. I’ve also seen reviews comparing it to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn — both books combine a wealth of anecdotal material — but Sebald’s work has a flow and continuity that Imaginary Cities does not always emulate, and his anecdotes (take for instance the business of the the herrings that begin to glow after their death) are selected in service of his greater themes. Imaginary Cities is more of a compendium of curious facts, first collated from a wide range of sources and then organized topically, with quite a lot of the content dedicated to quotation. The result is almost overwhelmingly rich. Individual sentences suggest whole stories and courses of research:
Having adopted the ironic name Filarete (‘lover of virtue’) and designed the bronze doors of St Peter’s Basilica, the architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino fled Rome after trying to steal the desiccated head of John the Baptist. (99)
I enjoyed reading Imaginary Cities. And yet — maybe because so much of the content is about formal experimentation? because my memory for isolated detail is not as good as I’d like and I want to retain more from each page than I do? — I kept wondering if it might have been better in some form other than a book.
Part of this is technological self-indulgence. As a computer program, Imaginary Cities would be a lot lighter to carry around, and could augment its content with a lot of plans and images. Right now it is an all-text book about an often-visual topic. The alternatives become more obvious if you check out the author’s Twitter feed, on which he routinely posts extraordinary concept art and plans.
Other reasons go deeper. Anderson has accomplished two things here: collecting a phenomenal amount of information from many sources, and then curating that information by taking interesting topical slices through it and commenting on the results. The resulting essays are thoughtful and well written — I don’t mean to imply that the author contributed nothing beyond collation. But the collation by itself is of such magnitude, variety, and value that I wanted more ways to study it.
Historically, we’ve tended to present that kind of information in a linear form or in a book designed for reference, or, after the invention of hypertext, in wikis. Hyperlinks are helpful, but the analogy of the V&A Spelunker suggests other possibilities. I imagine a database with suggested searches to get the reader started and perhaps some hand-authored commentary associated with particular terms — something that would help the reader gets started but quickly encourage her to start inventing and exploring her own connections, as well.
If there were too many search hits for a particular tag, the system could choose a random subset or request that the user refine the search. A reader could then pluck out references to Leonardo da Vinci, say, or to Paris, and assemble one’s own mini-chapters. (And then, probably, tweet a link to the results, because that’s the kind of world we live in.) After all, someone has already put the Library of Babel online.