Book Review: Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention

Ben Wilson – Metropolis: A History of the City, Humankind’s Greatest Invention (New York: Doubleday, 2020).

A wide-ranging world history told through the lens of cities. Wilson bounces around between Asia, Europe, and America, and concludes in Lagos, Nigeria, which is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s major urban centers. Wilson feels at home discussing subjects as diverse as the Epic of Gilgamesh and its relationship to Uruk, the first big city; coffeehouse culture in 18th century London, with its undercurrents of political dissent and rebellion against social norms; the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their fast but difficult recovery; and the birth of skyscrapers in jazz age New York and the dashed grand plans for remaking social orders in glass and steel. For a Brit, he is also surprisingly well-versed in the early history of hip-hop.

Wilson is a cheerful tour guide and has a conversational prose style that reads quickly. Metropolis would go well with any number of books, ranging from James C. Scott’s Against the Grain about the close relationship between early agriculture, the first cities, and the first governments; Monica Smith’s very similar Cities: The First 6,000 Years; and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, the influential urban economist who took on Robert Moses’ machine politics in New York City in the mid-twentieth century.

Comments are closed.