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Friday, August 19, 2016

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

At 1,424 pages, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 was my longest book yet.  I actually split it into two parts so that I wouldn't become too demoralized.  Altogether, it took me 56 days to finish.  I learned a lot.  As for whether I enjoyed it, it varied quite a bit.

When I started reading, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the book.  It was informative without being over academic.  It covered broad strokes, but included individual stories to make it both real and engaging.  As I got deep into the book, however, it became a chore to read.  While there were certainly still some interesting facts, it lost all sense of personal interest.  Much of it read like summaries of census data prepared by an urban anthropologist obsessed with where rich people lived.   I'm sure many of the facts detailed added up to significant conclusions, but the level of detail left my mind numbed by the time any point was made. 

While reading, I thought this might be due to the sheer volume of information available as time moved forward.  As one would expect, the amount of material for any given period increases dramatically as it goes from ancient times to relatively recent history.  The second part comprises 188 pages and spans 119 years.  The last part takes 196 pages to cover 18 years.

In retrospect, I'm pretty sure that the decline in quality has a different reason.  Gotham was written by two authors:  Edwin Burrows  and Mike Wallace.  Burrows wrote the first 26 chapters of the book, which covers New York City up to 1815.  That makes up only about one third of the book.  The rest of the book, from 1816 to 1898, was written by Wallace.  It was in the early 19th Century that I found the book deluging me with facts that would only be interesting to someone fascinated with the most minute facts about shifts in population in New York.

I would definitely recommend the first third of the book. The rest wouldn't be bad if you read a chapter here and there and take breaks, but reading it all at once was painful.  Wallace is supposedly working on a sequel to continue up to World War II.  After reading the first half of Gotham, I'd planned to add it to my list when it came out.  I will not be doing so.

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