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The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

November 16, 2011

When plans for a celebration of city reads began, my first thought was to find some YA non-fiction to write about. But what, exactly? I haven’t been in the mood to read biographies lately, and therefore still haven’t read Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, so I was a bit stumped. Then I read the newest issue of Wired. It includes a graphic from Kate Ascher’s The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper and mentioned that Ascher had previously written a book about cities.

cover of The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate AscherThat earlier book is The Works: Anatomy of a City. Okay, so it’s not a YA book like I originally wanted, but it does have YA appeal. This is largely due to the book’s format, which mixes short text blocks to introduce subjects, and devoting most of the page to infographics.

(Sadly, Penguin doesn’t have any excerpts available on their website. I have no idea why not, because what better way to sell the book? In any case, you can get a feel for what the interior looks like from the book designers here [click to pages 2 and 3, but the images are tiny], and there are some larger views here that you can actually read.)

Despite the subtitle, which may lead you to believe it’s about cities in general or uses an imaginary city as in some of David Macaulay’s books, Ascher’s focus is on illuminating the most important aspects of New York City’s infrastructure. (In fact, Ascher writes that she had “the idea of doing a David Macaulay (author of the terrific book The Way Things Work)-like book about the way New York City’s infrastructure works.”) Still, even if you don’t live in New York City, there is much that applies to other cities. Ascher dissects streets, the subway, rail freight, water and sewage systems, cell phone service, and much more. Want to know how bridges and tunnels are cleaned? How electricity is transmitted? Or how FedEx transports packages? It’s all in The Works.

While the writing sometimes has a textbook-like feel, the infographics enhance and expand readers’ understanding of the subjects that are covered. Despite the variety of subjects The Works explores, cities are such a broad topic that many other aspects of city life are not mentioned at all. As for backmatter, there are no source notes, bibliography, or suggested reading sections, but the index is pretty substantial. Overall, this is an often fascinating book—and one that’s great for browsing—about subjects that I didn’t know much about and/or hadn’t spent much time thinking about.

Book source: public library.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011 2:15 am

    Bah. Boo on Penguin for not having excerpts. I love stuff like this – and while the New Yorkophiles seem to have the market cornered on Hey Cool Our City stuff, I am fond of the history and details of all kinds of cities – this is the type of stuff that makes a writer feel like they can inhabit a place, even if only in their imagination. I love the designs in manhole covers, so the cover of the Ascher novel really works for me.

  2. November 17, 2011 7:18 am

    Tanita, have you ever seen the manhole covers in Seattle? They are quite beautiful.

    I’m sad that there aren’t source notes, a bib, or suggested reading. All nf should have that stuff. Regardless, it does sound interesting.

  3. November 17, 2011 8:31 pm

    @tanita – I was so disappointed to go to the Penguin site to find…less information than you’d find at Amazon, BN, etc. This is exactly the kind of book that would benefit from online excerpts and multimedia. I did find a nice excerpt of The Heights on NPR, though.

    I don’t think I’d ever really noticed manhole designs before, but definitely will now!

    @Jackie – I’ll have to look at the Seattle manhole covers the next time I visit!

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