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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 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.

New Yorker: The case for listening to complete discographies

Earlier this year, the critic and historian Ted Gioia published an essay called “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” At first, this looks like a textbook case of Betteridge’s law, which states that “any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘no.’ ” Nevertheless, old music’s encroachment on the cultural space once occupied by new music has become difficult to ignore. Gioia marshals compelling evidence: from a music-industry analytics firm that found that old songs represented seventy per cent of the U.S. music market in 2021 to recent bidding wars over song catalogues by artists who are now septuagenarians, octogenarians, or dead.

Some of us will hear this trend reflected in our listening habits. My own musical life in this decade offers an extreme example, dominated by the likes of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. This resoundingly un-idiosyncratic list is the result not of an ossified musical incuriosity but of a deliberately undertaken project: whereas Gioia listens to two or three hours of new music every day, I’ve made a daily habit of listening to “old” music—music by artists who began their careers in the nineteen-sixties and have made the largest, most obvious marks on popular culture. Working my way through their entire studio discographies, I take one album per week and play it once every day, straight through. This method (which I used most recently to navigate the nearly half-century-long catalogue of David Bowie) requires both an obsessive streak and a certain degree of patience: the studio albums of Dylan alone, which number thirty-nine as of this writing, took up most of a year.

Just by chance, Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” happened to fall in mid-December, which enriched the experience of that spirited if bewildering holiday album. (For me, it will never again feel like Christmas without hearing Dylan croak “Adeste Fideles” in his surreal Latin.) Every discography adds another chronological-cultural layer atop the ordinary passage of time: the year 2020 yielded nobody’s idea of an ideal summer, but for me it was at least enlivened by earlier Beach Boys releases, from the 1964 hit “All Summer Long” and the 1966 critical-consensus masterpiece “Pet Sounds” to the 1973 ambitious conclusion to the band’s long heyday, “Holland.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

UnHerd: the internationalization of Korean pop culture

Lee Jung-jae is in many ways the epitome of South Korean soft power. He has won international fame — and an Emmy this week — with his starring role in the hit Netflix series Squid Game, the dystopian South Korean thriller binge-watched around the world last autumn. He’ll soon take that fame to new heights as a leading man in The Acolyte, the forthcoming Star Wars series from Disney+.

It’s no coincidence that Star Wars’ first prominent east Asian performer is Korean. Americans in particular have by now come to regard South Koreans as what I call “the Westerners of Easterners”, a people more culturally relatable than the Japanese and less geopolitically threatening than the Chinese. This distinction results in large part from the West’s years of exposure to Korean popular culture, thanks to the likes of the Billboard-chart dominating BTS, Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture-winning Parasite, and of course Squid Game.

This pop-cultural “Korean wave” — or hallyu — began sweeping Asia around the turn of the millennium and reached Western shores in earnest a decade ago, with the surprise global phenomenon that was Psy’s Gangnam Style. A satire of the garish lifestyles led by Seoul’s nouveau riche, that song — and even more so its strenuously absurd music video — showed the Korean entertainment industry that, one way or the other, the West could be won over. Ten years on, it has nearly 4.5 billion views on YouTube and features in the Victoria and Albert museum’s “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” exhibition, which opens next week.

Read the whole thing at UnHerd.

Books on Cities: M. Nolan Gray, Arbitrary Lines

We all assume that zoning is good, but it’s actually bad. Before I go any further, perhaps that we needs clarification. It certainly doesn’t include me, nor does it include most of the urbanists now out there writing about cities in books, in publications, and on social media. In that particular sphere, we know full well that zoning is bad, and at all times stand ready to declare as much with the zeal of the recent convert. For, in more than a few cases, we really are recent converts, having only turned anti-zoning after approaching the technical aspects of cities through some more immediately interesting topic like architecture, infrastructure, or transit. For many in my own generation, raised in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, our fascination with cities and our misconceptions about zoning were instilled by the same experience: that of “a little game called SimCity.”

So writes M. Nolan Gray, opening the first chapter of Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. “Throughout the game, zoning is the essential power in the player’s arsenal, granting them the ability to plop residential subdivisions here or industrial parks there, all while keeping incompatible uses separate,” he explains. “Pursuant to a grand, long-term vision, they can coordinate density to reflect the available infrastructure, keeping the city running like a well-oiled machine.” As I recall (at least from my edition of the game, 1993’s SimCity 2000), you have to designate separate residential, commercial, and industrial zones before you can do anything else. (At least if you didn’t follow my strategy of first using the terrain editor to raise a giant water-covered mountain to cover with hydroelectric power plants later.)

This aspect of SimCity‘s design perpetuated a conception of zoning as fundamental to city-building, but it also reflected beliefs widely held for decades. Despite the increasing complexity and obscurity of its mechanics, zoning as a concept has been strangely well-known to the past few generations of the general American public, if not especially well understood by them. “My sense is that most people think that zoning and city planning are synonymous,” Gray writes. “Among the more informed lot, there might even be some vague sense that zoning is a catchall for how cities regulate land.” Imagining a city without zoning, their minds conjure terrible visions of chaotic Mad Max wastelands where leather-clad marauders do battle for gasoline amid industrial slagheaps — or, more often, of city dumps at the edges of backyards and rendering plants grinding noisomely away next to nursery schools.

Read the whole thing at Substack.