Friday, December 17, 2010

Larry Bennett

Larry Bennett is professor of political science at DePaul University. He is the author and coauthor of numerous books, including Fragments of Cities: The New American Downtowns and Neighborhoods, Neighborhood Politics: Chicago and Sheffield, and It’s Hardly Sportin’: Stadiums, Neighborhoods, and the New Chicago.

His new book is The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve been an avid reader since youth, for instance, reading and rereading Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee several times. These days I read books for a variety of reasons: to keep up with research on urban studies topics, “trying out” books that I may decide to assign in the DePaul University classes that I teach, and pleasure. Some of this reading overlaps. This past summer I very pleasurably read the late Gerald Boyd’s memoir, My Times in Black and White. Boyd was one of the Times editors bounced in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal in the early 2000s. Boyd’s book is a candid exploration of the particular challenges that will be encountered by a black man moving into the upper reaches of American institutional (in this case, media) culture. The book’s excavation of the inner workings of the Times newsroom is fascinating. And—the students in my American Political Culture course showed up for class and chewed over the book very effectively. I’m not a classroom lecturer; having the students do a sizeable share of the intellectual work by way of discussion is my aim. I can recommend Boyd’s memoir for multiple reasons.

Academic urban studies books are often “formidable”: writing that ranges from eccentric to simply inept; frequently presupposing a theoretical apprenticeship that most general readers will not have. A very notable exception is Sharon Zukin’s recently published Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Zukin is a New York-based sociologist and pioneer of what I characterize as the sociology of place. Her new book’s subtitle takes its cue from Jane Jacobs’ famous The Death and Life of Great American Cities. What Zukin offers in Naked City is an illuminating tour of contemporary New York neighborhoods—Harlem, the Lower East Side, Brooklyn’s Red Hook, and more—assessing the positives and negatives of gentrification, considering how the corporate “adoption” of public spaces (such as Union Square Park) at once enhances and distorts the city’s public life. This is a book for both New York enthusiasts and readers who are trying to process what precisely is the substance of the central city “comeback” of the last 20 years.

I host a summer (yes, I confess) urban studies reading group. This past summer my friends and I read Naked City, and wandering a bit farther afield, Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market. For readers who feel that having a working understanding of derivatives and other esoteric investment “products” is important, Fox’s very accessible “history of risk, reward, and delusion on Wall Street” does a commendable job of opening up this very special world whose peculiarities have spilled over (and nearly drowned) our world in recent years. Fox’s particular subject is the group of mathematicians and mathematically inclined economists and business school profs who developed the far-out investment tools that brought us the Bear Stearns, AIG, and Lehman Brothers collapses. One does not need a mathematics background to follow the narrative. Fox’s explanations of both the mathematical logic and investment applications are lucid. He closes his book with a brisk tour of the main incidents leading to the 2008 financial meltdown. The Myth of the Rational Market isn’t uplifting; it is riveting.

Ah pleasure (with no auxiliary purpose). This summer my wife and I toured Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, and Prince Edward Island, and I did not take with me the collected short stories—Island—of Cape Breton’s bard, Alistair MacLeod. I had in my possession a perfect (right down to the dust jacket) borrowed copy, but I was not going to desecrate my friend’s book via overstuffed backpack, airplane meals, ferry decks, picnic beverages, or coffee shops. Instead, I read just about half this wonderful book before flying to Halifax, then extended my vacation several days by finishing the stories when I returned to Chicago. MacLeod’s tales—most but not all set on Cape Breton Island—take us back to the early to mid-20th century and a Maritime Canada that was still a very wild place. Nor was life easy, but between its sharply etched descriptions of physical locale, hints of the otherworldly that dance through its plot lines, and MacLeod’s adroitly scattered humorous touches—in one story virtually all of the young men in a seaside community, including itinerant peddlers emigrated from the Levant, are named Angus—Island transports you.

So what did I read while on the trip? There was the 13th novel in the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series, but several flotillas worth of ink has previously been devoted to those books. I will merely note that I plan to finish the series, happily. The other travel book this year was Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, a history of early 19th century “Romantic” science. Holmes’ principal subjects are the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel, and chemist Humphrey Davy. His theme is the curious—at least from the standpoint of rationalistic science—and various relationships linking early 19th century scientists, explorers, and artists. For me, The Age of Wonder drops another foundation stone into my comprehension of how the modern world took shape. That’s quite an accomplishment for a book that is also a page-turner.
Learn more about Larry Bennett's The Third City at the publisher's website, and read an excerpt.

The Page 99 Test: The Third City.

--Marshal Zeringue