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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: Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land

In 2011, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne launched into a yearlong book-blogging project called “Reading L.A.” The earliest of its 27 titles about the city was Louis Adamic’s The Truth About Los Angeles, published in 1927; the most recent was by Robert Gottlieb’s Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City, published in 2007. Between those books came a couple that I’ve since written about myself: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, whose 45th and 50th anniversary I observed in the Guardian and at Archinect, respectively, and the late Mike Davis’ City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, a subject here on Books on Cities in 2022. Hawthorne’s inclusion of Holy Land by D. J. Waldie got me reading all of Waldie’s writings, and in 2021 I even reviewed his latest book Becoming Los Angeles for the New Yorker.

Hawthorne’s post on Holy Land inspired me to interview Waldie on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, just as his post on Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-rays of the Body Public led me to invite on that book’s author, architect Doug Suisman. When I took the show to Portland, I even attempted to interview (but ultimately couldn’t pin down) Richard Meltzer, who wrote Richard Meltzer’s Guide to the Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles and L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas, which I read on Hawthorne’s recommendation — a recommendation he gave me when he appeared on Notebook on Cities and Culture himself. I could go on, but suffice it to say that “Reading L.A.” had a considerable influence on me. Part of that owes to Hawthorne’s having done it the same year I moved to Los Angeles, but even now, in Seoul, I’m still reading through his selections.

Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land came third onHawthorne’s chronologically organized syllabus,having been published in 1946. At the time, this put it outside my immediate field of interest: though obsessed with Los Angeles, then as now, I thought of the nineteen-forties as belonging to a period of the city’s history when the cultural and urban phenomena that interested me — Ed Ruscha, dingbats, Koreatown, the Bonaventure hotel, neo-noir movies, Jeffrey Daniels’ Kentucky Fried Chicken on Western, the subway — had yet to manifest. In a sense, I conceived of Los Angeles as beginning anew around the early-to-mid-sixties, which isn’t entirely out of alignment with McWilliams’ historical scheme: he regards Southern California as having been shaped since the late nineteenth century by a series of distinct booms and subsequent waves of migration, each of which had mostly, but not entirely, overwritten the one before.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

제 첫 번째 책: 한국 요약 금지

이상하게 들릴지도 모르지만 제 모국어가 아닌 한국어로 쓰여진 제 첫 번째 책인 『한국 요약 금지』가 이미 출시되어 있습니다. 외국인의 눈으로 보는 한국에 대한 다양한 짧은 에세이가 수록되어 있습니다. 예를 들면 영화와 문학을 비롯하혀 문화의 토대가 되는 건축과 생활 그리고 사고 방식을 포함한 신념 과 언에에 이르기까지 제가 관심 가지고 있는 분야를 소개했다.

제 관점에 너무 구해받지 마시고 재미있게 읽어 주세요. 전국 서점에서 온라인을 포함한 대부분의 오프라인 채널을 통해 구매가 가능합니다.

Books on Cities: Tim Cocks, Lagos: Supernatural City (2022)

About a year after its publication, Tim Cocks’ Lagos: Supernatural City received a positive review in the Los Angeles Review of Books with the unfortunate headline “When a White Man Writes a Good Book About Africa.” I call it unfortunate not because of its untruth — for indeed, Tim Cocks, a white man, has written a good book about Africa, or at least a part of Africa — but because of its tendentious clickbait-adjacency. That belies the nature of the review itself, whose author, a New York-based Nigerian journalist called Kovie Biakolo, concedes the potential advantages of Cocks’ “outsider perspective.” She also admits that he actually does know Lagos “more fully and better than I do,” in the face of the assumption to which fashionable lines of thinking tend to lead: “I am Nigerian, he is not, and therefore I should know Lagos better than he does.”

An Englishman with South African roots, Cocks has been (as his Twitter bio indicates) reporting from the “mother continent” for a couple of decades at this point. He now lives in Johannesburg, but previously lived in Dakar and before that in Lagos, where he worked as Reuters’ Nigeria bureau chief from 2011 to 2015. He makes that clear right at the beginning of the preface, shortly before stating that “this is not a book about my own experience of Lagos.” As a reader, I always find such a declaration somewhat dispiriting, though it’s also unsurprising coming from a writer of Cocks’ professional formation. For better or for worse, reporters get habit drilled into them of staying out of (or minimizing their presence in) the “story,” which, of course, should involve only their interviewees and the people to whom those interviewees are connected, a cast in this case 100 percent Lagosian.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (1989)

In a 1991 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine frets over the potential consequences of breaking up with an older boyfriend who’s just had a stroke. “I’ll be ostracized from the community,” she says to Jerry. “What community? There’s a community?” he asks in response. “All these years I’m living in a community; I had no idea.” Though Jerry Seinfeld himself later named this episode as his least-favorite of the series, those lines still deliver one of the most memorable social insights in a sitcom known for memorable social insights. I’m no Seinfeld scholar, but from what I’ve seen, all its best jokes flatly reference conditions we seldom if ever acknowledge, but that all of us know, on some level, to obtain. Sensing that there is not, in fact, a community, we recognize the absurdity of our continued use of the word in the absence of its referent.

Two years earlier, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg published The Great Good Place. The book would become his best-known work, due not just to its unusual success by semi-academic standards, but also to its popularization of the concept of the “third place.” The first place is the home; the second place is the office, the plant, the store, or wherever else one may earn one’s wages. The third place, in Oldenburg’s words, “is a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” all of them endangered. More concrete categories appear in the subtitle: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Such places, to Oldenburg’s mind, are necessary — if not sufficient — to sustain public life.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Books on Cities: Malcolm Harris, Palo Alto (2023)

Malcolm Harris’ Palo Alto is not exactly a book about Palo Alto. Or rather, you won’t come away from it having learned as much about Palo Alto as its 720-page bulk might have you imagine. I don’t mean that as a criticism, since the book has greater ambitions: indeed, its very subtitle promises A History of California, Capitalism, and the World, which the text does go on to deliver. If you were just looking to read about Palo Alto, you’d probably put it down after a couple hundred pages. I myself picked it up expressly to write about as a city book, but despite the square-peg-round-hole category fit, one factor that kept me reading (and taking what came out to nearly 20,000 words of notes) was both my and Harris’ being northern California-born millennial writers with an interest in the course of civilization.

In his first book, Kids These Days, Harris made a study of our generation and its tendency toward less-than-impressive personal and professional outcomes. I’ve been aware of him at least since it came out in 2017, when reviews made it sound intriguing if somewhat ideological and hyperbolic. (One oft-quoted line, perhaps taken out of context: “We become fascists or revolutionaries, one or the other.”) Palo Alto, his third book, was published this past February, but I only became aware of it in the summer, when he drew a wave of attention by tweeting about bananas. “Pro-growth lefties accuse their opponents of being out of touch with working-class preferences and focused on consumption instead of production but what do they imagine planning support looks like for, say, ‘fresh bananas at every American 7/11’ among the world’s banana workers?” he asks at the top of the thread in question.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2023

For nearly a dozen years 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 3,000 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2023:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022.

New Yorker: The Return of Frasier

A new “Frasier” has débuted nearly two decades after the conclusion of the original series, and it moves Kelsey Grammer’s eponymous psychotherapist back to Boston, the city where he was introduced, in 1984, as a minor character on “Cheers.” By the time that show ended, in 1993, Frasier had become a major character, present in most of its episodes; the “Frasier” spinoff began just four months later, and soon became its own pop-cultural phenomenon. The sophistication exuded by its look, feel, and banter was so unusual for a network sitcom that it was often described as “the smartest show on television.”

“Frasier,” in its initial iteration, took place in Seattle, Washington, whose cachet had skyrocketed in the nineteen-nineties with the rise of Microsoft, Starbucks, Nirvana, and films such as Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” and Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle.” Frasier Crane is a divorced, fortysomething, opera- and wine-loving protagonist who has given up his psychiatric practice to host a therapy-themed radio show, and is intent on building a new life in his home town. His efforts are often frustrated by conflicts with his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), a fellow-psychotherapist who behaves even more pompously and fastidiously than Frasier, or with his father, Martin (John Mahoney), a police officer forced into retirement (and cohabitation with Frasier) by a gunshot wound. Together with Daphne (Jane Leeves), at once Martin’s live-in physical therapist and Frasier’s housekeeper, and Roz (Peri Gilpin), the blunt career-woman producer of Frasier’s radio show, these characters constitute the close-knit ensemble at the core of all eleven seasons.

To some extent, “Frasier” has been overshadowed by “Seinfeld,” which, like “Frasier,” was also a hit for NBC, but whose comedic ambitions transformed the sitcom as a genre. “Frasier” perfects the format in its own way, as the descendant of theatrical farce, in which misunderstandings, miscommunications, deceptions, incidents of mistaken identity, and moments of perfectly bad timing pile upon one another until the unstable narrative edifice comes crashing down into a state of normalcy. These stories might have Frasier pretending to be Jewish on Christmas Eve in front of the mother of a girlfriend-of-the-week, or Martin pretending to be gay to avoid being set up with the mother of a woman who catches Frasier’s eye at the opera, or Niles trying to host a dinner party for the neighbors in his prestigious new apartment building even after a talking bird perches immovably on his head. The show’s dedication to this classic form makes it comparatively timeless—apart from the occasional one-liner about subjects like Prozac, “Got Milk?,” Windows 95, and Dolly the sheep—as does its fixation on the venerable art of social climbing.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: David Maraniss, Once in a Great City (2015)

The twenty-tens brought forth a spate of books about Detroit, each of which takes a different angle on that troubled city: the straightforward history of Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography, the bleak reportorial machismo of Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, returned Detroiter Marc Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, new arrival Drew Philp’s A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City. In the middle of all of these, in more than one sense, we have journalist David Maraniss’ Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. Though born in Detroit, Maraniss didn’t come of age there, nor did he return to live there in adulthood, but in light of his career-long focus on twentieth-century American history, it isn’t hard to understand why he would regard it as a promising subject.

To tell the story of Detroit, Maraniss writes in an “author’s note” before the main text, “I chose to go back not to the fifties, when my family lived there, but once again to the sixties, a decade I’ve explored in various ways in many of my books” (not least They Marched into Sunlight, which is about the Vietnam War and its protestors). He then gets even more explicit about the parameters of his project, explaining that its chronology “covers eighteen months, from the fall of 1962 to the spring of 1964. Cars were selling at a record pace. Motown was rocking. Labor was strong. People were marching for freedom. The president was calling Detroit a ‘herald of hope.’ It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

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.