London book recommendations
January 11, 2012 8:01 AM   Subscribe

What should I read to get a feel for London?

I'm planning a trip to London in the next year or so, and would like to fill my reading list between now and then with books that give a sense of the city. Please recommend to me what I should read that is set in or features London. I'm looking for anything from the classics, to genre fiction, to compelling non-fiction and anything in between. Thanks in advance!

I've seen this.
posted by donajo to Society & Culture (34 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
It's kind of a different take, but I'd recommend Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World coupled with Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.
posted by mattbucher at 8:13 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:14 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Dickens Bleak House

Then take an Inns of Court walk and be astounded that many of the places and insitutions mentioned by Dickens are still there.
posted by vacapinta at 8:15 AM on January 11, 2012

This oral history collection is the best recent book about London that I've seen.
posted by Wylla at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The tube map.

But seriously, London: An Autobiography is really good.
posted by gauche at 8:19 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to add - remember that London circa 2012 is a real, living city - Victoriana and steampunk (even excellent quasi-Steampunk like Neverwhere) are perhaps not the best way to get a feel for the place, even for someplace like the Inns of Court, which are still alive and working, not just surviving relics from Dickens' era.
posted by Wylla at 8:22 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Neverwhere for (fairly) modern London.

Drood by Dan Simons is also very good for getting a sense of seedy, grimy, opium-den-and-overcrowded-cemeteries Victorian London. It's a bit of a tome, though.

This isn't a book, but you could also watch Attack the Block for a feel of what London is like if you're not a character in a Dickens novel.
posted by fight or flight at 8:23 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: London: the biography by Peter Ackroyd is long and idiosyncratic, but I loved it, and it seems to be generally considered to be the greatest non-fiction book about London (or indeed any city?) ever written — certainly the best written in the last few years.

Some Dickens obviously, and also White Teeth by Zadie Smith for a more modern take.
posted by caek at 8:23 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Letter from London by Julian Barnes.

Are you American? It's not specific to London, but one of the most insightful looks at British vs. American culture that I ever read was Bring Home the Revolution by Jonathan Freedland. It's a polemic for British audiences by a Guardian reporter on the American beat. He writes about how Britain should reclaim some of the best aspects of American culture. Along the way, it does a great job of illuminating many of the differences between two cultures that share so much. I've often told my friends that living abroad allowed me to see that a lot of things that I thought were just human nature really aren't. They're part of American culture, but as Americans living in America, they're as hard to see as water is to a fish. This book was one of the most illuminating in that regard.
posted by Clambone at 8:43 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been slowly working through the Ackroyd for literally over a year, you can kind of dip in and out, and it's gorgeously written. But it's great.

In terms of historical fiction, I loved Wolf Hall, which is about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII; it's basically all in London, and what's kind of amazing about it is how many of the streets and places are still there.

In terms of contemporary I'm also reading through Hackney, The Rose-Red Empire by Ian Sinclair, which is pretty idiosyncratic and might not work so well if you don't know the area at least a little, but I'm enjoying it. Sinclair is best known for London Orbital, which I haven't read but is account of walking the M25.

(I also want to sneak a recommendation for Patrick Keiller's film London, which kind of defies explanation, but does give a pretty great feel for the relatively recent city.)
posted by SoftRain at 8:44 AM on January 11, 2012

Best answer: I have this book on my Kindle. It's a contemporary oral account of London, and the extracts I've read so far are great. Some see London as a historical place, but it's also a living city, and you're as much likely to hear someone on the tube speaking Bulgarian, Urdu or Yoruba as English in some parts. It'll balance out the historical stuff nicely.
posted by mippy at 8:48 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, some nice easy fiction I've read that gives a good sense of people living and working here: Chris Cleave's Incendiary (this might have a different title in the US from memory - it's about a working class woman rebuilding her life after a terrorist attack) David Nicholl's One Day and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, and if you're not too scared of the chick-lit category, a lot of books by Lisa Jewell have a strong London flavour about them in their tales of flatshares and strangers jumbled together. This is a few years old now but it might be worth looking at (I don't know what happened to my copy sadly).

Also, I recently read Lindy Woodhead's book on Harry Selfridge which was a really interesting history of retail on and around Oxford St. If you mention where you'll be staying, or any particular interests you have, we might be able to come up with similar histories or apposite novels!
posted by mippy at 8:57 AM on January 11, 2012

I haven't been to London since I was a kid, so way way before reading this book, but this made me want to go back and explore:

London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2012

Martin Amis's London Fields is narrated by an American in London; Dickensian in its ambitions. Mid-century London is evoked in Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square and novels by Graham Greene such as The End of the Affair. Then how far do you want to go back? Thackeray's Vanity Fair?

SoftRain mentions Patrick Keiller's film London; there's a huge number of London-based movies, although this list misses 60s classics such as Darling.
posted by londongeezer at 9:01 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry, missed your "I've seen this" )
posted by londongeezer at 9:03 AM on January 11, 2012

Best answer: Nthing mippy and Wylla's recommendation of Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It. Hot off the press oral history of London and a feature on many books of the year lists.
(Reviews: Londonist - Evening Standard - Observer).

OT: I would also add Londonist to your RSS/bookmarks.
posted by bright cold day at 9:19 AM on January 11, 2012

Do Not Pass Go by Tim Moore is a tour of the city as found on the original UK Monopoly board.

Underground London by Stephen Smith is a tour of London concentrating on what's under your feet, the sewers, "lost" rivers, tunnels and tube lines.
posted by hardcode at 9:28 AM on January 11, 2012

In the spirit of Neverwhere, every book I've read by China Mieville is basically a twisted love song to London. If you aren't familiar with him - the simplest way to describe his writing is urban fantasy, but "new weird," while more vague, is also more accurate. He can be dense, which turns people off, but is my favorite author at the moment. Kraken is one that literally takes place in present-day London and is among his less dense novels; the City & the City takes place in an imaginary Eastern European city but there's a lot of London love in it and it's one of my favorite books, it's more magic-realist (sort of) and is in a noir / mystery style; Perdido Street Station takes place in a crazy steampunk-ish fantasy city with bug people and cactus people and frog people and magic and is also full of Mieville's London obsession.

Seconding Attack the Block, amazing movie.
posted by fireflies at 9:28 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

For guide book and history at the same time, H.V Morton's In Search of London. It's a beautifully written walking-tour guide written shortly after the war. It's crammed with all kinds of stories and legends connected with the locations, and is still one of the best guides to the city; but the post-blitz bombed out places described by war-correspondent Morton feels like you're walking through a black-and-white London with a charming but world-weary ghost. Indispensable!

Our Mutual Friend defenitely- you can actually read it in The Grapes, the pub in Limehouse that The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was based on, and watch the oily river slide by under the balcony, with our without bodies.
posted by Erasmouse at 9:42 AM on January 11, 2012

Rutherford's kind of out of vogue, I guess? But before I studied abroad in London I read his "London" and I really enjoyed it -- it helped bring a lot of the everyday life of various historical eras alive to me, and sort-of cemented the history in my head. (He also did "Sarum" set around Salisbury/Stonehenge, which is also great fun.)

(And now I must go find other Rutherford for my Kindle because they are not expensive for Kindle and they are nice and long!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:36 AM on January 11, 2012

Jerry White's London in the nineteenth century: "A Human Awful Wonder of God'" - well-written, fascinating detail and helps to give one a sense of the geography as well as the history. Lots of oral history and focus on the poor and ordinary people. He has another book on London in the twentieth century wch I haven't read but also has decent reviews.
posted by paduasoy at 11:44 AM on January 11, 2012

Geoff Ryman, 253, available at that link in its original form (down to the mid-90s formatting) as a hypertext novel, but also available in print.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 12:00 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

These are a little bit esoteric, but it you want to know some of the less-frequented or less fashionable bits of London (I.e the bits that most people actually live in and experience daily) then I can strongly recommend the following:

"Metroland" (film and book of the same name) and/or "Victorian and Edwardian London from old photographs" for John Betjeman's inimical views and voice.

"The North London Book Of The Dead" (in The Quantity Theory of Insanity) by Will Self - or perhaps "How the Dead Live" or "The Book Of Dave" also by him, if you want a full length Self novel.

"Leadville" by Edward Platt, which tells of the life and death of one of London's major arterial roads and the lives of the people who lived along it.

And although they're on your Wikipedia list I'd definitely have a go at "Hawksmoor" by Peter Ackroyd for a creepily pretty look at two very different centuries, and Amis' "London Fields" to grubby your soul.
posted by cromagnon at 12:02 PM on January 11, 2012

I've recommended the little City Secrets: London guidebook before, and I'll recommend it again, because its anecdotal approach reads like a fragmented narrative, well-suited to convey the living city as a collection of villages.

My favourite Iain Sinclair book is Lights Out For The Territory; a lot of Sinclair's work straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction.

(I don't know if londongeezer is this londongeezer, but if so, he's responsible for an incredible amount of good stuff.)
posted by holgate at 12:05 PM on January 11, 2012

Nick Hornby's book and movie About a Boy (more the movie) captures how alienating but also exciting London can be (albeit in that case North London).
posted by expatbore at 12:15 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Londonist, already namechecked, flagged up their five favourite London books of 2011. The top, Craig Taylor's Londoners, has already been suggested a few times, and it's got pretty much universal acclaim.

Our Mutual Friend defenitely- you can actually read it in The Grapes, the pub in Limehouse...

I can recommend this - that pub's my local, and it's a wonderful place to while away an afternoon.
posted by flashboy at 2:02 PM on January 11, 2012

Many of Christopher Fowler's novels are set in contemporary London (for values of "contemporary" stretching over the past twenty or thirty years - he's been writing for a while). He clearly loves London and knows it deeply, and it really comes through. I think his books offer the reader a tremendous feel for the city.

I would particularly recommend his Bryant and May series of detective novels, which starts with Full Dark House. Admittedly, that particular novel spends a lot of its time in the past - but then, London's past has defined its present.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:46 PM on January 11, 2012

Oh, hey, and for a really different fictional perspective on London, how about Michael de Larrabeiti's Borrible Trilogy?
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:50 PM on January 11, 2012

I was coming in to also recommend the Bryant and May mysteries by Christopher Fowler. After recently returning from my first trip to London as an adult, I read a few of these books and they really helped me to both remember the city that I'd seen and educate me about what I need to see next time (in an entertaining and thoughtful way). It's almost as though the city is one of the main characters in the stories. Fowler also has a blog that I enjoy reading:
posted by at 3:08 PM on January 11, 2012

for a flavour of a (no-so-long-) lost London, see Philip Davies, Lost London, 1870–1945 (Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press, 2009), and the follow-up, Images of Lost London: Work, Wealth, Poverty and Change (Atlantic Publishing, 2011).
posted by davemack at 3:20 PM on January 11, 2012

sorry, meant, '(not-so-long-) lost'
posted by davemack at 3:21 PM on January 11, 2012

Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor and Philip Davies's outstanding collection of old photographs Lost London.
Also a very interesting and more recent historical London blog Another Nickel in the Machine.
Oh, not forgetting Gustave Dore's London: A Pilgrimage
posted by Dr.Pill at 6:37 PM on January 11, 2012

This review of Londoners itself actually gives a bit of a flavour of the city!
posted by mippy at 3:20 AM on January 12, 2012

Just dropping in to add to the recommendations for Londoners by Craig Taylor. I've been living here for awhile and thinking of moving, but reading this on a flight back made me so excited to be going home to London. It really captures the flavour of the city as it is now.
posted by Concordia at 11:00 AM on January 12, 2012

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