Read Soft City: A Documentary Exploration of Metropolitan Life by Jonathan Raban Free Online
Book Title: Soft City: A Documentary Exploration of Metropolitan Life|
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The author of the book: Jonathan Raban
Edition: Harvill Press
Date of issue: May 21st 1998
ISBN 13: 9781860461071
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 17.88 MB
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Written in 1974, this ambitious study of the modern city in its psychological significance is still an exciting and illuminating read 40 years on, even though its mission - to capture the impact of the overwhelming diversity of the city-experience on the individual 'citizen' - must have been as impossible to achieve in a finite text then as it clearly is today. If the effort is ultimately doomed, then Raban is the right guide to follow on the attempt. He brings to the task the audacity of a 30 years old independent writer, a readiness to disclose his personal intimate experience together with detached erudition, and an incisive analytical mind. The author states the premise of his endeavour in the introduction:
"Signals, styles, systems of rapid, highly-conventionalised communication, are the lifeblood of the big city. ... The city, our great modern form, is soft, amenable to a dazzling and libidinous variety of lives, dreams, interpretations."
The book then proceeds by a sequence of independent chapters that investigate different facets of the soft city - London, mostly - as it employs methods from discussions of urban planning-literature and cultural criticism to original literary fiction based on Raban's personal experience (in "The Foreign Girl"). Chapter Two, "The City as Melodrama" argues that city dwellers often stage-act in a way that emphasizes moral extremes - much against common rationalistic or dystopian models of the city population. "Greenhorns" traces the fate of the immigrant in the city, with his/her heightened expectations - Raban was one of them. "The Emporium of Styles" emphasizes the importance of surfaces and appearances in the city - an issue that has become only more pressing by now (2013). "The Moroccan Birdcage" is an investigation of urban diversity, rich in concrete descriptions from 1974 London strets. "No Fixed Address" discusses isolation and coping strategies such as partner-search agencies. "The Magical City" shows that magical modes of thinking are a coping strategy to deal with the overwhelming complexity of the city environment, thwarting the utopias of the city as rationalistic cultural counter-weight to primitive nature in the countryside. In "Two Quarters" and the subsequent "One American City", Raban describes his experiences of Islington, Earl's Court, and Boston, respectively, trying to contrast different types of Place in the city. While limited by the concreteness of the When and Where, the contrast between the accounts of Islington and Earl's Court is nevertheless intriguing:
"It is possible to tell the story of the square in [Islington]; it has a history, and its fortunes have been relatively consistent ... But the square in Earl's Court does not lend itself to narrative. Its history stopped when householders could no longer afford squads of servants - somewhere between 1920 and 1930. Now it needs a patchwork quilt of intrusions, guesses and observations to get anywhere near its truth. It is diverse, random, out of time, even out of place (it is too many different times and places)."
In the final chapter, "A City Man", the author confesses
"I belong to the city in a way that I have been able to belong to very little else. I respect its rules and special skills. Competence in the uniquely imaginative and creative life of a big city is something to be proud of, and even the oddest, most ramshackle characters can possess it. More than anything else, I would like, sometime, to be a capable citizen. ... each city-life is an intricate pattern of belonging interspersed with these stretches of locomotion when one is stripped of credentials and credibility, when on sees oneself as just another moon-face in the crowd. ... Home, alone, is a place for picking thorns out of one's skin, for finding oneself again."
This is a predicament that many readers will be able to relate to, and the book left me with a sharpened sense of my existence as a city-dweller. The inherent difficulty of a book like "Soft City" is that whenever we try to fix the time and place of a description of the city - "now", "here", "me" - the substance of diversity is immediately lost, and some of Raban's 40 year old descriptions do ring a bit irrelevant now. But this is a necessary failure, and one from which the reader can learn.
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Read information about the authorBritish travel writer, critic and novelist