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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities, language, and culture.

On my new Substack newsletter Books on Cities, I write long-form essay-reviews on exactly that.

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including the New Yorker, Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

I’ve previously appeared on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape as well as hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

콜린 마샬은 도시와 문화를 포함해서 여러 주제들에 대하여 에세이를 쓰는 수필가이다. 그 에세이들은 <뉴요커>와 <가디언> 그리고 <로스 앤젤레스 리뷰 오브 북스> 같은 주로 영미권 매체에 실리고 또한 그는 한국 문학 잡지 <Axt>에도 기고한 적이 있다. 모국인 미국에서 30년 넘게 살며 8년 동안 라디오 방송과 팟캐스트에서 인터뷰을 진행했다. 그 후에 로스앤젤레스의 한인타운을 거쳐 세계에서 제일 큰 한인타운인 서울로 이사왔다. 서울에 사는 동안 <콜린의 한국> 팟캐스트를 운영하며 작가와 교수을 비롯하여 건축가와 방송인 같은 다양한 사람들을 여전히 인터뷰한다.

Books on Cities: Georges Perec, Lieux

Georges Perec was born in Paris and died in Paris (or at least a suburb just across the Périph), which didn’t necessarily qualify him to write about the city. Natives of a place tend to suffer from a degree of what-do-they-know-of-England ignorance of context, or even, to get more metaphorical and more clichéd, the fish’s unconsciousness of water. Why Perec could pull it off surely owes in part to his stints living elsewhere — boarding school in the Alps, a newlywed year in Tunisia — and in larger part to his sheer unconventionality as a writer. This is a man who wrote one novel structured by an all-knight’s-move journey through an apartment block, and another that, in 300 pages, never once uses the letter e: just two of the best-known achievements in a body of work mostly composed under similarly strict rules, methods, and constraints.

A member of Oulipo, the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle whose members dedicate themselves to the use of just such rules, methods, and constraints, Perec is remembered today as an experimental writer, albeit one whose work is credited with an accessibility, humor, and even feeling not usually associated with that label. These products could emerge from improbable processes: take the minor entry in his canon Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris), a 60-page book consisting of neutral-sounding observations made during three days in 1974 spent sitting at Place Saint-Sulpice: “I am sitting in the Café de la Mairie, a little toward the back in relation to the terrace.” “A woman goes by; she is eating a slice of tart.” “Two free taxis at the taxi stand.” “Three children taken to school. Another apple-green 2CV.” “A bus. Japanese.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: A Defense of the Ugliest Building in Paris

The sole skyscraper in central Paris celebrated its fiftieth anniversary recently, though “celebrate” may not be le mot juste. When the city’s official Twitter account wished the Tour Montparnasse (“Montparnasse Tower”) a happy birthday, the responses were hostile even by the standards of that platform, ranging from “Quelle horreur” to “La pire chose qui soit arrivée à Paris depuis les Nazis” (“The worst thing to happen to Paris since the Nazis”) to simply “Non.” Since I happened to be in town, I went to visit Paris’s least beloved building for the commemoration of its first half century. Nothing was out of the ordinary for a quiet Sunday afternoon: Falun Gong members sat in cross-legged protest on the concrete plaza; rough sleepers huddled against the walls and stairways of the complex’s shopping center; T-shirted tourists went straight up to, and came straight down from, the fifty-sixth floor.

That floor is occupied by a panoramic observation deck, which offers the most expansive view of Paris from above—and, more important, the only such view that doesn’t show the Tour Montparnasse itself. That oft-heard half-joke repurposes a similarly waspish remark attributed to the playwright Tristan Bernard about the Eiffel Tower, which, despite his resentment, has become a globally beloved symbol of French civilization. It’s a rare Paris postcard that fails to include the older tower, and a rarer Paris postcard still that fails to exclude the newer one. (Even the hooded sweatshirts for sale in the Tour Montparnasse’s own gift shop bear the image of the Eiffel Tower.) Nowhere else has such a physically conspicuous building arguably made so little obvious cultural impact; if, after fifty years, Parisians no longer ignore the Tour Montparnasse, that may be because they no longer see it in the first place.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

New Yorker: the rise and fall of smooth jazz

Whenever I’m asked to provide a “fun fact” about myself, I usually say that I worked as a smooth-jazz radio announcer back in college. It wasn’t the kind of unsuitable, faintly ironic part-time job one falls into as a student but, rather, the culmination of years of serious and directed effort. In fact, I’d been seeking professional entry into the world of smooth jazz since adolescence: as a high schooler in the suburbs of Seattle, I made weekly rounds through the used-CD shops of University Way to build my personal library of artists from the smooth-jazz world; I frequented Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, where practically all of those artists played, as a young Gen X-er might have hung out at punk clubs; I even persuaded the local smooth-jazz radio station to take me on as an intern. For all that, I’d never have claimed to like smooth jazz.

“I hate ‘classical music,’ ” Alex Ross once wrote in this magazine—“not the thing but the name.” I could say the same about “smooth jazz,” which I’ve always considered primarily a marketing term, the label not of a musical genre but of a commercial radio format. In Penny Lane’s “Listening to Kenny G,” a 2021 documentary about the saxophonist whose music—even more melodic and hooky than than those of his pop-jazz predecessors, such as George Benson and Grover Washington, Jr.—defined that format, the industry consultant Allen Kepler recalls how that label came about. Conducting focus groups with the market-research firm Broadcast Architecture in the late nineteen-eighties, Kepler asked participants to describe music like Kenny G’s however they liked. One woman, Kepler says, had the perfect answer: “She’s thinking. She says, ‘It’s jazz.’ She says, ‘It’s smooth jazz.’ It was almost like it just came to her like a lighting bolt.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Kate Ascher, The Works (2005)

Last year, the scientist and energy economist Vaclav Smil published a book called How the World Really Works, just a few months before I got it into my head that I should be reading a lot more about technology in general and infrastructure in particular. “For most of its inhabitants, the modern world is full of black boxes, devices whose internal workings remain — to different degrees — a mystery to their users,” Smil writes, and indeed, I read his book myself out of a desire at least to reduce the number of black boxes in my own world. If the Twitter thread of quotes I kept while doing so is anything to go by, much in How the World Really Works stuck me as notable. Yet, reading the thread less than a year later, I find that I recall reading barely any of the passages I included.

It particularly surprised me to have forgotten that Smil — a literate man, said on his Wikipedia page to read one or two non-technical books per week — quotes from Émile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris. In a chapter on food production, he notes that “recycling organic wastes is hardly a topic addressed by famous novelists,” but Zola, “always a complete realist, captured its importance when he described Claude, a young Parisian painter who ‘had quite a liking for manure.’ Claude volunteers to toss into the pit ‘the scourings of markets, the refuse that fell from that colossal table, remained full of life, and returned to the spot where the vegetables had previously sprouted… They rose again in fertile crops, and once more went to spread themselves out upon the market square. Paris rotted everything, and returned everything to the soil, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.’”

Zola’s novel takes place in and around the market complex of Les Halles, just on the other end of rue Montorgueil from where I stayed during the past month I spent in Paris. Yet not once during that month did Claude or his liking for manure cross my mind, perhaps because Les Halles itself was demolished in the early nineteen-seventies, leaving behind a site since occupied only by a couple of unloved underground shopping malls. Still, you’d think an association would at least have been triggered by Kate Ascher’s The Works: Anatomy of a City, which I happened to read in Paris. Specifically, you’d think it would have been triggered by her chapter on sewage, which constitutes the central third of “Keeping It Clean,” the fifth and last proper section of the book, the preceding four being “Moving People,” “Moving Freight,” “Power,” and “Communications.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: Murakami in the Movies

For enthusiasts of Haruki Murakami, last month brought two major events in two different countries. One is the publication, in Japan, of his latest novel, “Machi to Sono Futashika na Kabe” (“The City and Its Uncertain Walls”). The other is the release, in the United States, of “Saules Aveugles, Femme Endormie” (“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”), an animated feature based on several of Murakami’s short stories. In contrast to “The City and Its Uncertain Walls,” about which almost all information was withheld from the public before it went on sale, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” has been publicized with all the means available to a production of its modest scale, including a trailer that emphasizes a host of identifiable pieces of Murakamiana: prowling cats, ethereal sex, dense Japanese urban landscapes, an absent wife, a descent into darkness, and a talking humanoid frog.

That last creature appears in Murakami’s short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” and it’s vaguely disconcerting to hear it speaking English—or French, for that matter, in the film’s original trailer. A French Luxembourgian Dutch Canadian co-production, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” was directed by the composer-filmmaker Pierre Földes, whose official Web site says he was “born in the U.S. to Hungarian/British parents” but “raised in Paris.” Despite lacking any obvious connection to Japan—Murakami’s homeland, and usually his setting—Földes comes off as just the sort of international figure likely to be inspired by Murakami’s work. In adapting that work for the screen, he adds another volume to the saga of Murakami in the movies, which, like one of the writer’s own increasingly elaborate, oddity-filled novels, compensates for its frequent lapses into inelegance with the sheer fascination of aesthetic, cultural, and linguistic incongruity.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Robert Fouser, Exploring Cities with Robert Fouser (로버트 파우저의 도시 탐구기)

Robert Fouser left Korea in 2014, the year before I arrived. By that time he’d spent a total of thirteen years living here, most of them working as a professor at Seoul National University. Over the previous few decades, he’d also lived for considerable stretches of time in Japan, where his work included teaching the Korean language — and doing so, I should note, as an American. This strikes Westerners as a stranger arrangement than it did his students themselves, for whom, in his telling, it seemed no more remarkable than being taught Korean by a Korean; a foreigner is a foreigner, after all, especially in Japan. Still, any American without east Asian heritage who manages to teach Korean in Japanese commands my respect, given my own years of sure-to-be-lifelong struggle with both languages.

Putting teaching behind him and returning to the United States seems to have shifted Fouser’s writing career into a higher gear, especially — and ironically — his writing in Korean. Over the past six years, he’s published five books in this country: A Manual of Democracy for Koreans (미래 시민의 조건), Seochon-holic (서촌 홀릭), Spread of Foreign Languages (외국어 전파담), Exploring Cities with Robert Fouser (로버트 파우저의 도시 탐구기), and Learning Foreign Languages (외국어 학습담). These titles suggest an uncanny overlap between his interests and my own. I have noticed, at least in my own circles, a tendency of Westerners invested in the Japanese and Korean languages also to be invested in architecture and urbanism. But as far as I know, no others have written entire books about languages and cities in Korean.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: Trapped in Robert McKee’s Story

This year’s list of Best Picture nominees feels dispiritingly familiar. “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” are two colossally budgeted sequels written to internationally crowd-pleasing Hollywood specifications. And, though the non-sequel “Everything Everywhere All at Once” has been celebrated as a burst of cinematic creativity, its strenuous visual and sociopolitical exertions do not mask its adherence to the storytelling tropes of a superhero picture. No element of its narrative, in other words, would surprise the script guru Robert McKee, whose popular guide to screenwriting, “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” was published more than twenty-five years ago.

Among those averse to genre spectacle and Oscar-baiting melodrama, McKee has become a byword for screenwriting structures as cynical and manipulative as they are widely employed. (Akiva Goldsman, a specialist in big-budget adaptations of existing properties—“The Client,” “Batman & Robin,” “The Da Vinci Code”—is probably McKee’s most notable adherent.) When I lived in Los Angeles, it wasn’t unusual to be in a café, surrounded by aspiring screenwriters with laptops running Final Draft, who were obsessing aloud over Inciting Incidents, Turning Points, and Major Dramatic Questions. In “Story,” McKee bestows these concepts (and many more) with capital letters.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2022

For nearly a decade now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 2,800 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2022:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, 2019, 2020, and 2021.

Books on Cities: Joel Garreau, Edge City

The past decade has seen considerable growth in — and, subsequently, an almost-as-considerable contraction of — what I think of as the online “city media.” Compelled to keep the content mill turning in lean times as well as fat, most of these sites have resorted to the reliable form of the recommended-reading list. Certain titles tend to appear over and over again in these roundups of the ten, twenty, 50, 100 “best city books”: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The City in History, Learning from Las Vegas, The Power Broker, City of Quartz. But one book strikes me as conspicuous by its absence: Joel Garreau’s Edge City, which I don’t think I’ve seen named even once. Yet when it was published just over thirty years ago, it seems to have made a considerable impact on the city-related discourse of the day. Why the apparent passage into irrelevance?

One potential explanation lies in the sheer unfashionableness of the places the book examines. Irvine, California; Tysons Corner, Virginia; King of Prussia, Pennsylvania: these are just a few of the eponymous “Edge Cities,” all consisting of relatively high concentrations of office and retail (and to a lesser extent, residential) space thrown up in America since the Second World War on formerly exurban or rural land. This isn’t to say that they were fashionable in the late nineteen-eighties, when Garreau was researching them, but they were as least newer than they are today. They were also, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it, “under-theorized,” which in combination with their novelty — not to mention their booming growth — would have made them an irresistible subject for a journalist of the right cast of mind. Garreau, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post with an interest in American demographics, was that journalist.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

New Yorker: J. M. Coetzee’s War Against Global English

It may come as a surprise to most of J. M. Coetzee’s readers that he published a new novel in August. “El Polaco,” which is set in Barcelona, is about a romantic entanglement between Witold, a concert pianist of about seventy known for his controversial interpretations of Chopin, and Beatriz, a music-loving Catalan woman in her forties who assists him during his stay in the city. Fired more by mind than body, the two attempt to conduct their affair using the kind of stilted, colorless “global English” to which international communication so often defaults. Apart from an initial carnal encounter, their romance takes place in large part by correspondence: Witold writes Beatriz poems, but, with English verse lying beyond his grasp, he does so in his native Polish. Beatriz engages a translator in order not just to understand but evaluate Witold’s poems, which she gives modest marks.

A short novel, restrained even by Coetzee’s standards, “El Polaco” is made up entirely of numbered paragraphs, some of which consist of a single sentence. The first: “La mujer es la primera en causarle problemas, seguida pronto por el hombre.” Witold is el hombre; Beatriz is la mujer. But occasional slips in the dissimulating, pseudo-objective voice of the text suggest that she’s also the narrator. Another sign of her role is the book’s language: though first written in English, “El Polaco” has so far only been published in a Spanish translation. The translator, Mariana Dimópulos, played an unusually active role in the novel’s creation: Coetzee has spoken of incorporating her suggestions about how a woman like Beatriz would think, speak, and act back into the original manuscript.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.