Monday, November 28, 2011

The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

I happened to read the November issue of Wired while searching for a book to write about for a recent blogger celebration of city books. I wanted to write about YA nonfiction, but outside of Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (which I do want to read in the near future, but I haven't been in the mood for biographies lately), nothing caught my attention. Until Wired ran a brief excerpt from Kate Ascher's The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper and mentioned that Ascher had previously written a book about cities.

That 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. Still 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.

Originally published at The YA YA YAs.

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