Paris: The Biography of a City by Colin Jones

This book’s front cover proudly features a quote by Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, where he calls this book “Exhilarating.” Sounds like a good enough recommendation, but let’s consider the source: generally, the sort of people who become directors of world-famous museums are also the sort of people who think that looking at pottery shards is exhilarating.

What I’m trying to say here is that while Paris: The Biography of a City is certainly interesting for those who really want to learn about the history of Paris from pre-Roman times to modern day, it’s not exactly going to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The problem, of course, is that Paris has such a varied, rich, and long history that the best Jones can do is give us the cliff notes of Paris in 487 pages – he even admits in the preface that he’s had to work really hard to focus his information just on Paris itself, eliminating anything that doesn’t relate directly to the city and the changes that it and its people have gone through over time. The result is that Jones has to completely ignore anything that didn’t happen in Paris (so the period of Louis XIV to XVI is basically skipped right over, since the monarchy was based in Versailles at the time) and rush through all the important stuff so quickly we barely notice it. The Revolution doesn’t even get a whole chapter, the Romans are basically a footnote, and we go from Henri of Navarre to Louis XIV in ten pages. Throughout all of this, Jones sprinkles the book with annoyingly tantalizing bits of stories that he doesn’t have the time to go into, like this: “In the mid- to late 1880’s, however, this moment of relative calm in Parisian politics was overturned by a political shooting star, General Boulanger, a kind of intellectually challenged Napoleon. His call for constitutional revision and a war of revenge against the German empire won a good deal of electoral support among working- as well as middle-class Parisians. By 1891, however, the general had shot his bolt (and indeed himself, on his mistress’s tomb) but the 1890’s would see the emergence of new sources of political instability.”

Wait a minute, go back! He shot himself on his mistress’s tomb? I want to read more about that!

But you can’t, because that’s the first and last that we hear about General Boulanger, and before you can say “slow your roll, Jones” we’re moving on to the Dreyfus Affair, which I still don’t understand because it lasted a paragraph.

The book does have some good things going for it: first, Jones devotes an impressive amount of space (especially considering how quickly he has to go through all his information) to discussing the emergence and growth of the banlieues, the Parisian suburbs that have, by this point, become larger than Paris itself. It was nice that he didn’t just focus his story on the tourist idea of Paris, but acknowledged the less-picturesque aspects of it.

On a related note, my favorite section came towards the end of the book, when Jones discusses the Algerian fight for independence and how the residents of Paris reacted to the conflict. Did you know that there was a massive pro-Algeria demonstration in Paris in 1961, and the police killed almost 200 protestors, either by beating them to death or drowning them in the Seine? Did you know that the French government didn’t even acknowledge that this had happened until 1999? I didn’t, and it was mind-blowing.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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2 Comments

Filed under Review

2 responses to “Paris: The Biography of a City by Colin Jones

  1. I’ve been on a quest for the perfect Paris book ever since visiting this summer. I tried The Seven Ages of Paris and a bunch of others, but no luck. By the sound of it, this wouldn’t quite be it either. Where are you, perfect Paris book? Surely you must exist!

    • I dunno…like I said in the review, Paris is too much to be contained in just one book. Maybe one day if someone puts together an encyclopedia of Paris, that’ll cover everything in satisfying detail.

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