My favorite books on the history of cities

Why am I passionate about this?

I became interested in cities through my research on culture in Asia. I came to appreciate how much cities generate culture - and are the exchange points for different ideas. I’ve hosted a podcast on urban history, edited a book (Cityscapes in History: Creating the Urban Experience), and written about urban space for various magazines and websites.


I wrote...

Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars

By Katrina Gulliver,

Book cover of Modern Women in China and Japan: Gender, Feminism and Global Modernity Between the Wars

What is my book about?

At the dawn of the 1930s, a new empowered and liberated image of the female was taking root in popular culture in the West. This 'modern woman' archetype was also penetrating into Eastern cultures, however, challenging the Chinese and Japanese historical norm of the woman as homemaker, servant, or geisha. Through a focus on the writings of the Western women who engaged with the Far East, and the Eastern writers and personalities who reacted to this new global gender communication by forming their own separate identities, Katrina Gulliver reveals the complex redefining of the self taking place in a crucial time of political and economic upheaval.

The Modern Woman in China and Japan is an important contribution to gender studies and will appeal to historians and scholars of China and East Asia as well as to those studying Asian and American literature.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Economy of Cities

Katrina Gulliver Why did I love this book?

This book discusses how the first cities formed, and how they operated. We assume they had to be centers of trade and production, but Jacobs really drills down into how that worked. In contrast to other scholars who argue cities emerged as agriculture grew, Jacobs suggests cities were the driving force behind agricultural development. Don’t be put off by the term “economy” if you’re not a numbers person, this isn’t a discussion of tables and percentages, but about the earliest cities would have created culture.

By Jane Jacobs,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Economy of Cities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book, Jane Jacobs, building on the work of her debut, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, investigates the delicate way cities balance the interplay between the domestic production of goods and the ever-changing tide of imports. Using case studies of developing cities in the ancient, pre-agricultural world, and contemporary cities on the decline, like the financially irresponsible New York City of the mid-sixties, Jacobs identifies the main drivers of urban prosperity and growth, often via counterintuitive and revelatory lessons.


Book cover of The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

Katrina Gulliver Why did I love this book?

Mumford’s work on the nature of cities has been hugely influential over the last few decades. He writes in a very literary but accessible style about cities, as the notion of “urban history” was just coming into its own. For anyone who has wondered about cities as part of the human past, I’d recommend this book.

By Lewis Mumford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The City in History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD. A definitive classic, Lewis Mumford's massive historical study brings together a wide array of evidence — from the earliest group habitats to medieval towns to the modern centers of commerce — to show how the urban form has changed throughout human civilization.
Mumford explores the factors that made Greek cities uniques and offers a controversial view of the Roman city concept. He explains how the role of monasticism influenced Christian towns and how mercanitile capitalism shapes the modern city today.
The City in History remains a powerfully influential work, one that has shaped the…


Book cover of City of Women

Katrina Gulliver Why did I love this book?

While this book is about New York, it offers great insights into the role of women in urban spaces that are relevant across the world. Stansell weaves together statistical and official records, court reports, press stories, and paints detailed pictures of the lives of women in the nineteenth-century city. This includes the range of employment women took, and their various strategies to resolve disputes, run businesses, and manage their lives. In a city as diverse as New York, this included women from all over the world.

By Christine Stansell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked City of Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Before the Civil War, a new idea of womanhood took shape in America in general and in the Northeast in particular. Women of the propertied classes assumed the mantle of moral guardians of their families and the nation. Laboring women, by contrast, continued to suffer from the oppressions of sex and class. In fact, their very existence troubled their more prosperous sisters, for the impoverished female worker violated dearly held genteel precepts of 'woman's nature' and 'woman's place.'

City of Women delves into the misfortunes that New York City's laboring women suffered and the problems that resulted. Looking at how…


Book cover of Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier

Katrina Gulliver Why did I love this book?

Glaeser’s book is a fascinating, and celebratory work on how cities came to be - and improved humanity on the way. The creativity and technological improvements driven by cities are everywhere, and Glaeser makes readers think anew on how they’ve benefited from urban spaces - even if they don’t live in one.

By Edward Glaeser,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Triumph of the City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Understanding the modern city and the powerful forces within it is the life's work of Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser, who at forty is hailed as one of the world's most exciting urban thinkers. Travelling from city to city, speaking to planners and politicians across the world, he uncovers questions large and small whose answers are both counterintuitive and deeply significant. Should New Orleans be rebuilt? Why can't my nephew afford an apartment in New York? Is London the new financial capital of the world? Is my job headed to Bangalore? In Triumph of the City, Glaeser takes us around…


Book cover of Building the Devil's Empire: French Colonial New Orleans

Katrina Gulliver Why did I love this book?

This book is about the city of New Orleans, and how it came to be, as an outpost of 3 empires in turn (the French, the Spanish, and the nascent United States). Its cultural mix gave it a rich identity, but also practical issues - whose legal system would be followed? What language should be used? This legacy created a particular urban environment, and Dawdy’s work brings out the most fascinating stories in how this city came to be.

By Shannon Lee Dawdy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Building the Devil's Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Building the Devil's Empire" is the first comprehensive history of New Orleans' early years, tracing the town's development from its origins in 1718 to its revolt against Spanish rule in 1768. Shannon Lee Dawdy's picaresque account of New Orleans' wild youth features a cast of strong-willed captives, thin-skinned nobles, sharp-tongued women, and carousing travelers. But she also widens her lens to reveal the port city's global significance, examining its role in the French Empire and the Caribbean, and she concludes that by exemplifying a kind of rogue colonialism - where governments, outlaws, and capitalism become entwined - New Orleans should…


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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


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