The Colossus of New York

I learned of this book from a beautiful quote from my friend Kunal and am generally a sucker for at least the idea of city-focused essay collections (Horizontal Vertigo ↗, Cool Gray City of Love) so I was delighted to find a copy easily available on Libby.

That beautiful quote is perhaps a useful metonymy for the book as a whole; indeed, all this book has is mellifluous one-or-two-liners about #CityLife. It feels something like a novella-length graduation speech; high on gravitas and quoteability, low on depth and legitimate insight. It was fun to read a few pages; it was exhausting and colorless to read beyond that.

What was particularly painful for me was how Whitehead's attempts at universality (no names! no specific narrations! a surfeit of second-person!) undermined his attempt to paint New York as anything more specific than "big urban life." The section about Central Park could serve as a section about Golden Gate Park; the section about the subway could have taken place in Paris.

This felt like a book for people who want to daydream about life in the big city; I wanted a book that contained truth, not truisms.

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© 2023 Justin Duke • I hope you're wearing your favorite sweater.