Urban life isn't all overcrowding and air pollution – Leo Hollis finds some glowing tributes among his top tales of the city, from ancient Rome to modern Manhattan
Since the age of Gilgamesh, the great epic poem that charts the history of Uruk – today a ruin in southern Iraq used by the US army for target practice – the city has been catalyst and stage for all sorts of dramas, stories and philosophies.
Yet so often our metropolises have been depicted in literature as the destroyers of men – and worse, their souls. When Dante dreamed of Hell, he was thinking of renaissance Florence; Dickens used Victorian London as a metaphor for the mercurial cruelty of the world; and Ian Rankin's detective John Rebus could not work anywhere but in the capital of justifed sinners, Edinburgh.
As I started to research my book on the advantages of urban living, Cities Are Good for You, I found that the reality on the ground differed from traditional assumptions: urban life can be beneficial, liberating, creative and sustainable.
This top 10 list covers several different views of the city, both in time and space.
1. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Stephen Mitchell
How were cities first born? It is often the myths of creation that are the most revealing. Gilgamesh is the legend of the first Mesopotamian city, Ur. The epic poem tells of the divine king and his quest for immortality, and includes allusions to more familiar stories such as the Garden of Eden and the Great Flood. It is also said to be an influence on the first great Greek urban historian, Homer.
2. On Architecture, by Vitruvius
The single most important book on architecture from the Roman era. Vitruvius was the builder who turned Mark Antony's capital into marbled Augustan Rome. The book sets out the basic rules of classical architecture, covering everything from the order of columns to central heating, as well as the source for the story about Archimedes shouting eureka in the bath. Once rediscovered in the 15th century, the book inspired the Renaissance fascination with ancient buildings.
3. Survey of London, by John Stow
A compendious street-by-street trawl through Elizabethan London. John Stow was an antiquarian who wanted to chart the city he loved before it disappeared (68 years before the Great Fire). His descriptions of the capital are exquisite and exhaustive in their detail, making it feel like a foreign place filled with arcane rituals and hierarchies. It is sometimes strange to come across the palimpsest of Stow's London as we wander its streets today.
Charles Dickens was perhaps the greatest chronicler of the sentimental city; he makes the reader empathise with Victorian London, charting its emotional geography as much as its physical. In Night Walks, he attempts to cure his insomnia by trudging through the streets. Like every city, London looked completely different under the flicker of gas lamps.
5. Looking Backward 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy
Written in the late 1880s, this early sci-fi fantasy has shaped our thinking about the city in unexpected ways. In the novel, Bostonian Julian West falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000 to find himself in an extraordinary utopia. The novel would later inspire the House of Commons stenographer, Ebenezer Howard, to plan the Garden City that was first built in Letchworth and then spread across the world as one of the 20th century's most influential innovations in town planning.
6. The Arcades Project, by Walter Benjamin
Chaotic and hypnotic, this unfinished history of the passages of Paris by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin is unlike any other book about the modern city. Through the story of the arcades – covered shopping lanes created for the fashionable bourgeoisie – the author anatomises the city, its people, ways of life and ideologies. The book was never concluded – Benjamin committed suicide as he fled from France in 1940. The abandoned manuscript and notes were put together later.
7. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
This is perhaps the most influential book for urbanists today. From her home in Hudson Street, Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs offered an alternative view of the workings of New York City. Focusing on community rather than order, her "dance of the street" offered an enticing image of how a busy neighbourhood might thrive. Jacobs is often criticised for being homespun and folksy, but she put people at the heart of interpretations of the urban world – a lesson too often ignored by engineers and planners.
8. The Right to the City, by Henri Lefebvre
Henri Lefebvre wrote this book while working as a taxi driver in Paris in the 60s. No longer content with his communist colleagues, the author of the famous Critique of Everyday Life created this short, philosophical meditation on urban ills. Completed shortly before the events of May 1968, this book has remained a rallying cry for the city as a location for change.
9. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
A brilliant and tireless work of journalism set in the slums close to Mumbai airport. Katherine Boo spent time talking to and observing the many characters who are given such full life in her pages. She does not come up with easy solutions, nor does she turn away from horrors – yet she allows individual lives to have their own dignity. There has been so much debate about the informal city and the economic potential of slums that it is worthwhile recalling the people who live there and the challenges they face.
10. Open City, by Teju Cole
This drift through Manhattan revives the spirit of Guy Debord and WG Sebald. Teju Cole is a young Nigerian writer based in New York, and though his narrative lacks plot his journeys on foot through the city are a consistently fascinating trawl through time, space, memory and imagination. There is a sense of elegy in his description of the great city; his words remind us we can be alone and connected to the vast urban tapestry at the same time.