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London: The Biography

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  5,271 ratings  ·  409 reviews
London: The Biography is the pinnacle of Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant obsession with the eponymous city. In this unusual and engaging work, Ackroyd brings the reader through time into the city whose institutions and idiosyncrasies have permeated much of his works of fiction and nonfiction.

Peter Ackroyd sees London as a living, breathing organism, with its own laws of growth
Paperback, 801 pages
Published 2003 by Anchor Books (first published December 5th 2000)
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Average rating 3.97  · 
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 ·  5,271 ratings  ·  409 reviews

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Nov 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Dear Mr. Ackroyd,

Will you marry me? I know you're gay, and I'm a woman. I understand that such details present wrinkles in the grand scheme, but I'm sure we can arrange bits on the side and whatever.

Truthfully, I don't think you are really good looking, but you sure write sexy.

I wish I had a quarter of your intelligence.

This love poem to London, for love poem it is, is wonderful. It's brillant! It's marvellous!

I think I just want to marry you so I can live in London.

Well, that and your accent.

Aug 14, 2011 rated it did not like it
Nobody can doubt the incredible amount of research the author collated to put this mammoth of a book together. His subject matter is fascinating and rewarding.

However, Ackroyd's writing style is very particular and surely a matter of taste - unfortunately this reviewer finds it annoyingly loose, try-hard artistic and peppered with sweeping generalisations and over romanticisation. Small sections of the book stand out for their accuracy and fluency and undeniably, the book is crammed with reams
Jan 10, 2009 rated it liked it
London: The Biography is a junkshop of the heart, more or less: Peter Ackroyd's heart, or the heart of anyone else who has fallen in love with London's 2000 year history, its transformations, its theatricality, its poverty, its wit, its preposterousness, its influence on the English language. This is a book that's too densely packed with interesting data, arranged in short, thematic chapters, to be read from front to back, much as London is a city that's too large and infinite to be visited thor ...more
Jan 17, 2013 rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
F.G. Cottam
Jun 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
London has always possessed the presence of a character (and a major character at that), in the quite brilliant novels Ackroyd has chosen to set there. His love of and fascination for the city has always been apparent. Here he demonstrates his scholarly expertise on a subject that clearly beguiles him and with what incredibly enjoyable result.
The best praise I can offer this book is that it is worthy of its subject. It is deep, mystical, multi-layered and endlessly fascinating.
I lived in Londo
Ravi Prakash
Jun 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have never been in London, but someday in future I would love to visit.
Being a student of English literature, I was always fascinated about this city- the city where Shakespeare lived, wrote and performed; where the best english poetry and dramas had been written and sung; the city of an empire on which the sun had never set; the city which was prospered by the financial exploitations of British kingdom's colonies- most particularly India- I wanted to know London's history, and I would say t
Jul 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
What a book. Ackroyd has created the ultimate portrait of London as a living, breathing entity, not just a collection of old buildings and monuments. Rather than a dry chronological trawl through the history of our nation's capital, instead Ackroyd chooses themes and explores them through time and space, focussing on specific areas or ideas. Thus he paints a picture of an ever evolving city that defies all attempts to change or control it. London is its own master.

Ackroyd ranges back and forth t
Nov 17, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: london
This book is a massive undertaking, both for the author and the reader, and the amount of extraordinary, fascinating and brilliant detail in here is mind-boggling. It pulls from an awe-inspiring number of primary sources to provide the most delectable quotes on everything from pubs to fashion to murders to popular food. In fact, I can't think of a subject that isn't in here, and it's all woven together in a form that is almost like fiction. It muses, ponders, revels in minutiae. This is the firs ...more
Apr 08, 2013 rated it it was ok
As a native Londoner, I found parts of this book very interesting. For example, I knew there had been other rivers in London such as the long-lost Fleet river, what I hadn't realized is that they are all still there, buried under the city. I also didn't know much of anything about London pre-Romans.

Apart from being really, really long, there were a few things I didn't like about this book. One was the way Ackroyd described things as being unique to London, for example quoting all the references
Pete daPixie
Aug 06, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Could very well be THE biography of 'London', Peter Ackroyd's 2000 publication is a monumental eight hundred page delight. The scope and coverage is breathtaking, from the last ice age to the domain of wild animals, to the Roman and Saxon foundations to it's present day sprawl. The capital city with all the trials,tribulations,fog and flame from Aeneas to Ziegler.
Ackroyd has produced a masterpiece. It is clearly a life times work, and not just a historical one. The reader is taken by the hand an
Jun 11, 2011 rated it liked it
Whither art thou driven, ghostly stranger, by the lamentations that echo in the dales of the lifeless and broken hills from whence thou wert bound? Phantom of breath, buckler of the passed and passing days, into what deep chasm of the forgotten mind of God hast thou found thyself, mewling for the grace that has evaded thy dogged and persistent steps? Look inward, man-child—a succession of stygian wombs hast thou haunted, passing now into life and anon into death. The cry of babes and the rattle ...more
Hilary "Fox"
This book was truly extraordinary.

I was looking for an in-depth history of London, and I certainly found it between this book's covers. Peter Ackroyd truly did write a biography of London, from its sprawling streets to its strange citizens. His writing is fluid, and fascinating to read; his use of primary sources is utterly astounding, and somewhat maddening, as the cockney can be a bit hard on the eyes.

Peter Ackroyd's book is told in a very loose chronology. While the 'story' begins with prehis
Mark Love
Jun 03, 2010 rated it liked it
You may be forgiven for thinking that my recent paucity of reviews was a due to lack of reading brought about by the birth of our son. Not so. I have been labouring through this beast of a book for the past couple of months, and am now relieved to be able to put it back on the shelf.

Peter Ackroyd's biography of London is impressive in every sense - the length, the breadth, the details and the passionate and scholarly work that went into it, and it has been celebrated by reviewers and middle-clas
Lyn Elliott
Jan 04, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, fiction
I initially gave this four stars, recognising the huge amount of research that Ackroyd has pulled together - anything you want to know about scandals, sewers, executions or thievery in London is here in an exuberant tumble. But ultimately the tumble led to my three star rating - the lack of order in the presentation jars for me and I gave up. It's a book for dipping rather than straight through reading.
The Manchester Guardian review on this link summarises several other reviews that balance amaz
Monty Milne
Jun 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I loved this, and I am slightly surprised I did, for two reasons: I am usually no great fan of thematic history (I recently posted a review here of a book on ancient Egypt which I criticised for its non-linear approach), and I am usually no great fan of London. Ackroyd had me beguiled and persuaded, though. The thematic structure works brilliantly because Ackroyd – a master wordsmith as well as a master of his subject – is adept at sculpting a beautiful and many-sided narrative. For me, London i ...more
Perry Whitford
Oct 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In his brief foreword, Ackroyd describes this monumental labour of his as that of 'one stumbling Londoner, who wishes to lead others in the directions which I have pursued over a lifetime,' inviting the reader to both 'wander and wonder.'

The abiding theme of Ackroyd's fiction is of how the past both underlays and influences the present, how the previous events of a particular place inform current events in uncanny ways. Where better to give ultimate expression to that theme than the history of L
Jul 21, 2015 rated it it was ok
There's a tremendous amount of research here, and I particularly appreciated Ackroyd's focus on original sources to describe the spirit of London through the ages. I wish it had been organized chronologically, however, instead of thematically, and the discussion never seemed to get much beyond the few hundred years between the late Renaissance and the mid-19th century. I also got a little tired of Ackroyd trotting out London as a metaphor (London is a key, is a prison, is a garden, is a stage, i ...more
I love London. Although it's not my absolute favourite city, it's the one whose history I'm most fascinated by. I bought this book after my first trip to London back in 2013, and have been very much looking forward to reading it ever since.

To be honest, it was a bit of a letdown. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting, but this wasn't it. There's no doubt that it's incredibly well-researched and intelligent, but I put the book down feeling very dissatisfied. I wanted to learn more about this
Jul 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Laurie by: NG Traveler
This is such an exhaustive survey of London, I cannot imagine how long it took Ackroyd to research and write. This touches on absolutely anything and everything you could want to know about the city. Equal parts entertaining and educational, it took me quite a while to read simply because of the amount of information packed into it. Covering prehistory up to the millennial year, it's definitely recommended for any London-phile. A world of worlds, no other city on Earth has ever existed quite lik ...more
Jul 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The book that introduced me to Peter Ackroyd as an author. I have to admit that the book takes quite a while to get through, especially if you do not have the time to dedicate to reading just the one book. I really enjoy how thorough he is going from age to age on how London developed. I do recommend reading the book, but a number of pages can be daunting. I had it for a year before I felt I was up to tackling it.
This was okay. I love reading about London, quirky interesting facts about places that I know. This had plenty, but also had a LOT of other information about places, people, things...just about everything. The title says it all...'concise'! I found myself flicking through to find bits that I found interesting, but there was still plenty of bits to keep me going! ...more
Dec 03, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this before we went to London in June.

I wound up reading it more by dipping into it here and there, rather than sequentially.

It's a lot of fun, because it's packed with the history of specific locations.
Lost interest- too busy living here! Another time when I am feeling nostalgic, probably.
Jun 21, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I taught college prep writing to my senior classes, oftentimes the students would choose a topic that was just - well - huge! ‘the Renaissance’ or ‘Chaucer’ or ‘The Spanish Armada’ or ‘Hamlet’. I would say “well, clearly an interesting choice, but you need to narrow it down.”
So, let’s say a student picked the play, Hamlet.
Me: pick one character.
Student: okay, Hamlet
Me: what intrigues you about THAT character?
Student: his struggles
Me: good, what about them?
Student: well, he has many people
Rob Frampton
It is telling that, at the end of ‘London: the Biography’, there is a twelve-page section entitled “An Essay on Sources”. Of course it would be impossible to write a book on such a dense and lengthy subject as the history of the great metropolis without referring to historical sources, but there is an almost overpowering sense in which much of Ackroyd’s book is a patchwork of other people’s views and descriptions. I can see that such an approach could yield useful insights into a city born in th ...more
David Ball
Apr 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A masterpiece. The history of London, not chronologically, but thematically. The topics cover almost every sense: from the smell of the fog to the ever present noise, the markets, the vendors, the street theatre, the never ending rebuilding. Certain neighbourhoods are brought to light: from the radical history of Clerkenwell to the commercial history of the Thames, its docks and its tributaries. Chapters are dedicated to prisons, madhouses, coffee shops, and pubs; and of course the people, their ...more
Sherry the penguin
Who reads a 600 page history book on London?!
Well, me apparently.
It took me almost a year, as I took my time with this one.

I am absolutely mind blown by Ackroyd’s work. The author managed to take a history heavy city like London and instead of writing a chronicle with a sequential timeline, tell stories about London life.
I don’t think I ever read a history book with this much enthusiasm, I cannot believe how much I actually now know about the city. The way he tells the story has changed my daily
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
A compendius history of the city of London from its inception as a Roman Imperial outpost to the largest and at the time richest city in the world. The author goes to great lengths to stress that this prosperity has always been achieved on the backs of the poor of London.

So apart from the sheer physicality of the city itself, its size and extension and growth, what of its inhabitants? Who are they and where do they come from and how did they get there? The author goes to great pains to examine
Mar 28, 2020 rated it liked it
I felt ambitious for picking this up and only after I was halfway through it did I realize that I was actually reading the abridged version of Ackroyd’s famous work! Nevertheless, the level of detail in every imaginable aspect of London’s history and present is painstaking to the point of being overwhelming. I am fascinated by the city and know it better than most cities I’ve visited in my own country, yet I still found myself skimming some of the longer and more detailed sections.

In terms of q
Louie Reynolds
Apr 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lots of great info, but does jump back & forth through decades. As i read it studying for uni, it could be frustrating when i quote would be put in during an era but was not relevant as that person passed away 50 years earlier.
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Around the Year i...: London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd 5 18 Jun 03, 2016 05:36AM  

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Peter Ackroyd CBE is an English novelist and biographer with a particular interest in the history and culture of London.

Peter Ackroyd's mother worked in the personnel department of an engineering firm, his father having left the family home when Ackroyd was a baby. He was reading newspapers by the age of 5 and, at 9, wrote a play about Guy Fawkes. Reputedly, he first realized he was gay at the age

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“London goes beyond any boundary or convention.It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London.” 6 likes
“lonely and isolated people who feel their solitude more intensely within the busy life of the streets. They are what George Gissing called the anchorites of daily life, who return unhappy to their solitary rooms.” 3 likes
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