books about london?
March 4, 2007 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to London for a week soon - do you know of any books/stories that would offer insight/history/accounts etc. to help me better appreciate my experience there. (maybe something like Bill Bryson's "Notes From A Small Island"- but more focused on Londontown?) I read Washington Irving's "Alhambra" before visiting there and it really "brought the place alive" thank you for any suggestions!
posted by mrmarley to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

Depends how quick a reader you and how soon "soon" is, but Peter Ackroyd's immense "London: The Biography" fits the bill. Still even if you don't have time to read it cover to cover, it's great to dip into.

"Still Open" is a great little guide to "traditional" London shops with maps and bite-sized histories of each shop. Well worth a look for some off the beaten track London experiences.
posted by Sifter at 1:57 PM on March 4, 2007

Watching the English is very entertaining, even if the author rips off Paul Fussell at times.
posted by LoriFLA at 1:57 PM on March 4, 2007

Oh wait, disregard that one. I meant this one. :D
posted by thirteenkiller at 1:58 PM on March 4, 2007

Peter Ackroyd's 'London: The Biography' is long, rambling, slightly scholarly and a couple of years out of date, but it definitely will give you a flavour of the place.

Edward Rutherford has also done one of his cookie-cutter books about the history of a family thoughout 2500 years of London. It's called, umn, 'London'.

Oh, two tips from a local. Get an Oyster card, and don't try to do too much - the city is humongormous. I keep finding new things every day. That's the amazing thing about this city.
posted by randomination at 1:59 PM on March 4, 2007

City Secrets: London is a guidebook, but it's also a history and a taste of London from the perspective of those who think Samuel Johnson was right.

But I'd also look to Iain Sinclair's Lights Out For The Territory. You may find the psychogeography a bit out there, but for the 'feel' of the city, there's nothing to compare. If it gives you anything, it'll be a sense of how to walk and look and wander.
posted by holgate at 2:41 PM on March 4, 2007

I know it's not a book but We Are the Lambeth Boys makes a good watch.
posted by popcassady at 2:51 PM on March 4, 2007

84 Charing Cross Road is no longer a second hand bookshop but many of its neighbours still are. Fun to visit if you have read the book.
posted by rongorongo at 2:53 PM on March 4, 2007

The Ghost Map offers an interesting counterpoint to many of the historical books people will probably suggest. It's a work of popular medical history, and details the investigation of a London cholera epidemic. It paints a vivid picture of a city seen as the center of the world, yet on the verge of breaking down due to its population density.

Maybe it's not your thing, but worth a suggestion. Also, you'll also appreciate modern plumbing more after reading it.
posted by trouserbat at 2:56 PM on March 4, 2007

Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere" is purely fictional, a fairy tale. But its brooding portrait of the multi-layered gray beast that is London, riddled underneath with secrets and mysteries is very compelling.
posted by yoz420 at 3:53 PM on March 4, 2007

Still open is great, and so is the oyster card suggestion.

Since I moved over to the south east of the city, I've been spending more time around Whitechapel and around those parts - for a bit of fictional background on the grisly history of the area I'd recommend Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem and From Hell.

If you fancy doing the Tate Modern (and it seems everyone does) why not try Blimey for a bit of background on how London became the art city it has become over the last ten years.

And not fiction, and not really a guidebook either - my favourite London book is A London Compendium - which reminds you how full of history the most unprepossessing street is. Have fun!
posted by calico at 4:05 PM on March 4, 2007

Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle" has a lot of fascinating stuff about Enlightenment-era London; much of the books takes place there. It starts, I think, around the time of the great fire of 1666. This is fiction, though, and it does travel a bit, so your "London" info isn't very concentrated -- but they're great books, and a lot of fun!

The first volume is called Quicksilver, and there's a lot of London history in it. It also includes a historical map of London from that time.
posted by amtho at 4:24 PM on March 4, 2007

Seconding Lights Out for the Territory, if you're ok with sometimes off-the-wallness. There's also his London Orbital, but as I remember it that's probably of more interest to residents than tourists. You might also like the Time Out books of London Walks (mentioned in this thread - much more than just routes, lots of social history.
posted by paduasoy at 4:57 PM on March 4, 2007

I visited London for a week 6 months ago, and I echo amtho's suggestion of Quicksilver. It was awesome walking through the city and realizing I was standing right where the characters in the novel were.
posted by jmd82 at 6:01 PM on March 4, 2007

This must be the tenth time I've recommended Underground London. The stories, which are interesting to start with, are also well-written. You'll get a sense of history from it, too; visits to different sites are tied in with different historical periods.

I've read Edward Rutherford's London, and although it does have some historical background, I wouldn't recommend it.
posted by booksandlibretti at 6:47 PM on March 4, 2007

Slightly off-topic, but I'd recommend a trip to Daunt Books once you get here. An exquisite travel bookshop that will inspire future adventures (and maybe inform this one).
posted by dogsbody at 7:43 PM on March 4, 2007

Peter Ackroyd - London - A biography.
posted by adamvasco at 3:53 AM on March 5, 2007

I second A London Compendium and Underground London. You probably don't want to haul around a phone-book sized tome, but The London Encyclopedia is awesome. It's 14 years old, so it's missing the last 0.7% of London's history :-)
posted by lukemeister at 8:47 AM on March 5, 2007

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