10 Great Novels Every Urbanist Should Read

Read all the reports you want. Catch up on headlines. Notch the classics in the literature of cities — Jane Jacobs, Thomas J. Sugrue and all the rest.

There will still be something missing.

In the best fiction, writers convey a kind of truth about cities that can’t solely be captured in true stories. This list gets beyond the usual suspects — The Jungle, Dubliners — and shines a spotlight on 10 riveting novels and story collections that the urban enthusiast may have missed. With ferocity, humor and intelligence, these books can be counted on to reveal the lived experience in the urban landscape with uncommon power — illuminating both the failures and the possibilities of city planning.

The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow
Featured city: Detroit

“Our most unpretentious American masterpiece,” Joyce Carol Oates called it. A finalist for the National Book Award, this 1954 novel is set a decade earlier, when a Kentucky family migrates to Detroit for work in an auto factory that now supplies military equipment. Gertie Nevels struggles to turn scanty factory housing into a home for her children and her husband in a city that marks them as “hillbillies.” From crowded public schools to the roving police presence, from debt as a way of life to green space sacrificed for industry, The Dollmaker is an unnervingly empathetic portrayal of the daily battles of survival in the city. Arnow’s portrayal of a crowded Detroit alley features an extraordinary ensemble cast, where diverse characters — children too — must choose whether or not to fight for their individualism in a place that values the exact opposite.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
Featured city: Naples

Opening in post-war Naples, a city of astonishing scarcity, we follow Elena Greco into the late 1950s. Greco, the daughter of the porter, grows up in a neighborhood shaped by ordinary violence, gossip and deprivation. This is a book that gracefully untangles entrenched patterns of urban poverty, and reveals how generational legacies of sexism and illiteracy distort a city’s power dynamics — and stunt its very best minds. Look especially for how Ferrante portrays Naples’ education system, and how the politics of language (dialect versus polished Italian) influence how characters navigate the city. My Brilliant Friend is the first in what is now a trio of books (there’s also The Story of a New Name and _Those Who Stay and Those Who Go) that make up the Neapolitan trilogy. A fourth book is said to be in the works.

Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones
Featured city: Washington, D.C.

In 14 stories set in the capital city, the author of The Known World looks beyond the glad-handing political circles, polished bureaucrats and the sophisticated tourism circuit. Instead, he zeroes in on the African-American experience in Northeast and Northwest, moving street by street through a little-seen D.C. Here, a girl raises pigeons on the roof of her apartment building. A man struggles to grow a neighborhood grocery. Another man who has found some stability is thrown off center when his teenage daughter runs away and never returns. A woman keeps up the pricey home that her son bought her with the money he earned from drugs. Jones’ sharp eyes and ears capture the sometimes unseen loyalties that stitch a city together.

I Sailed With Magellan by Stuart Dybek
Featured city: Chicago

Dybek — the man who has become something of the bard of Chicago — chronicles life in the city’s South Side in the 1950s and ‘60s by following the life of Perry Katzek through corner bars, Catholic schools, VFW halls and Lake Michigan beaches. The episodic structure gives the book the feeling of elegy and memory association, reminding readers about how our deepest understanding of cities is not shaped by chronological cause-and-effect and precise history, but by peculiar emotional resonances.

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes
Featured city: Berlin

Opening in Berlin in September 1928, City of Stones follows an ensemble cast as they navigate life in the last years of the Weimar Republic — a time of jazz and art for some; a time of darkening political tensions and long-term unemployment for others. A journalist, an art student and many others are living in a city that is undergoing a tectonic shift — and even those in denial must face up to it on the bloody May Day of 1929. City of Stones is a collection of 16 individually published comics, and reads as graphic novel. Lutes is particularly adept at revealing how a city in upheaval is experienced differently by adults and children, the rich and poor, the artists and workers. The second part of the still-unfolding Berlin trilogy is told in Berlin: City of Smoke — it, too, is a must-read.

Aya by Marguerite Abouet; illustrated by Clément Oubrerie
Featured city: Yopougon (or “Yop City”), Ivory Coast

Abouet has said that she began to write the Aya graphic novels — this one is the first in an informal series — because she was frustrated with the limited portrayal of cities in Africa. Pictured as places of war and famine, she saw literature’s failure to capture the humor and daily rhythms that she remembered from her own childhood in Côte d’Ivoire. In Aya, she brings us to Yop City in 1978, a sunny working-class city in West Africa that brims with youthful energy, infatuation and promise. The story follows our 19-year-old heroine and her friends as they learn what it means to become an adult in this city. Aya is a light-hearted and charming story — hardly a dense portrait of urban life. But that makes it perhaps all the more revealing.

Fat City by Leonard Gardner
Featured city: Stockton, California

This isn’t your usual sports story, full of melodrama and slow-motion heroics. Fat City focuses on the tension of work, dreams and the everyday drabness of two young boxers in Stockton, California in 1969, one in his late teens, the other turning 30. As Joan Didion wrote, Gardner got Stockton “exactly right” in his only novel — “the hanging around gas stations, the field dust, the relentless oppressiveness of the weather, the bleak liaisons sealed on the levees and Greyhound buses … ” Both the big-dreaming boxers and the city are rife with contradictions — people say what they don’t mean, hope for what they don’t want and create realities out of what isn’t true. In the portrayal of small-time bouts, cheap hotels, and day labor in the fields and orchards, the city of Stockton emerges with diamond-sharp clarity.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino; translated by William Weaver
Featured cities: Various

This modern classic is constructed as a dialogue between Marco Polo and the aging emperor Kublai Khan, where the explorer is describing the 55 extraordinary (and imaginary) cities that he visited on his journeys. Each vignette portrays a different city, taking the grandest ideas of city design and urban theory, and pushing them to the extreme. Octavia, for example, is a city made of spider webs, suspended above an abyss and supported by an abyss that can’t possibly last — echoing the dilemma of real cities made fragile by a changing climate. Armilla is a city of pipes: Its buildings lack floors, ceilings or walls, foreshadowing the postmodern trends in architecture. With its imaginative force, and the unsettling ambivalence about whether Marco Polo is describing distinct cities or different ways of looking at Venice, it’s no surprise that Invisible Cities is a favorite in design courses.

NW by Zadie Smith
Featured city: London

The title of this polyphonic novel signals the postal code for North-West London, where our four leading characters intersect. Specifically, they all come from a fictional housing project called Caldwell, which has five towers that are each named for an English philosopher: Hobbes, Locke and so on. Smith takes readers through the multicultural stew of modern London by way of its parks, alleyways, apartments, offices and sidewalks. Written with a mix of points-of-view and styles (screenplay, narrative, stream-of-consciousness, lists, directions), the novel feels expansive and without a center, rather like the city itself — especially for those who live on its dusty margins. Few novels penetrate the inner workings of a city’s class systems — especially its opportunities and limitations for mobility — as well as NW. As James Wood put in the New Yorker, “Smith is a great urban realist.”

them by Joyce Carol Oates
Featured cities: Detroit and Grosse Pointe, Michigan

Winner of the National Book Award, them is a multi-generational novel that spans the 1930s through the 1967 riot in Detroit. We follow the Wendell family — Loretta and her children, Jules and Maureen — as they attempt to carve out space for themselves in an urban landscape of cyclical poverty and abuse. Southwest and downtown Detroit are especially featured here, at a time when the city had only just barely passed its peak as an economic power. With agility, Oates traces how the moneyed city overlaps with its high-pressure neighborhoods. (The novel was initially titled “Love and Money.”) Here, people are beginning to believe that the only way to bring about social change in their city is to overthrow it all.

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.

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