University of Warwick History professor Colin Jones already has a respectable body of work on French culture and history, covering everything from the French Revolution to early modern French medicine. With Paris: The Biography of a City, Jones traverses an intimidating amount of history from Roman times (when Paris was known as Lutetia) to present day. Throughout, Jones emphasizes that Rome was the model on which Paris was built, and thus was expected to become a bastion of arts, culture, and modernity. Not only has Paris become that, of course, but it is also one of the best loved cities in the world. This volume is a love letter to Paris.
While much of Jones's writing is academic, he gives intriguing insight into Paris's past: religious and political conflict, violence, revolution, disease, population fluctuations, immigration, modernization, and more. He covers everything from small events of minor historical significance to major events, such as the French Revolution and World Wars I and II, explaining how each of these events left an indelible mark on Paris and its people. He also details the spread of Paris, from its very humble beginnings confined in the Île de la Cité to its current landmass consisting of twenty arrondissements and its outer banlieue (suburbs). Jones even explains the history behind some of Paris's most famous landmarks: Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, the Centre Pompidou, and the Louvre, with its controversial glass pyramid. While some of these landmarks were much maligned in the beginning, Parisians soon embraced them, and as Jones shows, Paris would not be Paris without them. Paris also would not be Paris without the Seine, as Jones consistently reminds us.
This book is a confusing array of dates, arrondissement numbers, and street names. To get the most out of it, one must either be intimately familiar with Paris or have a good map to consult. Jones provides several maps at the back of the book that chronicle Paris at various time periods, but they are only moderately helpful. A glossary, illustrations, an extensive bibliography, notes, and a list of characteristic buildings with their construction dates are all included to give a more thorough examination of Paris.
Jones also includes special highlighted sections in each chapter that detail people, places, and things that helped shape Parisian culture. These sections break up the continuity of the chapters, and are probably best saved for reading after the chapter is completed.
Paris: The Biography is a City is in no way light reading. But for any lover of history, or any lover of Paris, it is an essential book. While it cannot possibly cover absolutely everything in Paris's two thousand year history, it is a valiant effort. Paris is familiar to most people via movies, television, and books (if traveling there is not an option); this text will add a greater understanding of how Paris became what it is today, and is likely to give anyone who reads it a new appreciation for the "city of light."