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Paris: The Biography of a City

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  421 ratings  ·  51 reviews
From the Roman Emperor Julian, who waxed rhapsodic about Parisian wine and figs, to Henry Miller, who relished its seductive bohemia, Paris has been a perennial source of fascination for 2,000 years. In this definitive and illuminating history, Colin Jones walks us through the city that was a plague-infested charnel house during the Middle Ages, the bloody epicenter of the ...more
Paperback, 566 pages
Published April 4th 2006 by Penguin Books (first published 2004)
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Les Misérables by Victor HugoA Tale of Two Cities by Charles DickensA Moveable Feast by Ernest HemingwayThe Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre DumasMy Life in France by Julia Child
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593 books — 532 voters
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3.79  · 
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 ·  421 ratings  ·  51 reviews

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Sep 23, 2011 rated it liked it
This book's front cover proudly features a quote by Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, who called this book "Exhilarating." Sounds like a good enough recommendation, but let's consider the source: generally, the sort of people who become directors of world-famous museums are also the sort of people who think that looking at pottery shards is exhilarating.

What I'm trying to say here is that while Paris: The Biography of a City is certainly interesting for those who really want to lea
May 17, 2010 rated it really liked it
Writing a book about a place with as storied a history and culture as Paris can't be easy, but I found this an absorbing read. From Paris's prehistoric origins through to modern times, Jones examines how the city has developed over the centuries in great detail, looking at politics, society, culture, and geography. It's organized generally in chronological order, but each chapter also includes several "feature boxes", which are essentially sidebars covering in more detail specific topics, such a ...more
Jan 21, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Colin Jones's history of Paris is subtitled "The Biography of a City," yet the book he provides is virtually the opposite. For rather than providing an intimate portrait of the city through the ages, what he offers is an account of the city within the context of the nation's history. This is understandable given Paris's role in France's development, though as Jones demonstrates Paris wasn't always the center of authority in the country. It wasn't until the high Middle Ages that Paris was transfo ...more
This books greatest strength and weakness is that it is one of the most thorough overviews on the city of Paris history that has been written yet. Unlike many it goes into wonderful detail on the early years of Paris and the build up on the Isle de cite. One of the other drawbacks is that the maps of Paris in the back are just okay but if you have a Paris travel book with good maps you will be better served for following the authors descriptions. The downside to the detail is that you can get bo ...more
Aug 12, 2013 rated it liked it
I read it and may even re-read it. This is just what it says: the biography of the city of Paris. The book is about how Paris came to be starting with early settlement on an island in the Seine and its banks, ever outward to fields and villages whose names remain with us, like Belleville and Montmartre. It is a story of change, which will truly dispel the idea that Paris is frozen in time. The huge cast of characters who shaped the city includes nobles, workers, politicians, revolutionaries, rab ...more
Doug Newdick
Nov 05, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Firstl, this is not an easy read. The lack of a narrative or set of events to tie this book together means that I struggled to read it from cover to cover. Having said that, the different sections were often fascinating, and I did really enjoy it. I felt I learned a lot about Paris and France, and now have a renewed interest in visting again. Colin Jones has created a book full of depth, one that shows you the changing face of Paris over time. I felt that I really understood the way that the dif ...more
Jun 12, 2009 rated it liked it
Very comprehensive history of Paris starting around 50 BC when it was known as Lutetia by Julius Caesar. Enjoyable to those who are familiar with and have a great interest in the city's past, but more of a reference to the average tourist. I found much of this book very interesting especially since I recently spent a lot of time wandering around this amazing city. It tends to get somewhat dry in places, but overall a worthy read as the biography that it is.
Nov 10, 2009 rated it liked it
Really, really good. If you've been to Paris, it's far more interesting. I did find that the author got really bogged down into the details of city planning from the mid-1800s and continues for the last 50 pages of the book and yet he seems to gloss over major events like the Revolution, Napoleon's ascension, the World Wars. But someone renames a street and he spends two 'graphs talking about it.
Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Feb 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Superb history focused on the growth and development of the history of Paris! Part of me wishes I'd read this before I went to Paris, but a greater part is well aware that it means more being able to make the appropriate connections as I read it. This is also one of those reads that makes learning fun. I learned a lot about unexpected things (what a diligence looks like, and its size) as well as things I'd expected to learn.
Florence May
Dec 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
The most interesting in depth study of Paris ... Infrastructure, intellectuals, daily life, relationship with royalty, conflicts, growth, education, trash, health .... Everything Parisian. Enjoyed the sidebar stories. Not an easy read but fascinating as preparation for my 10 day trip through the various arrondissement.

Jon Riekenberg
Apr 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
I really like Paris and I want to like this book, but holy boring book, Batman! I've stopped reading this for now and moved on.
Jan 28, 2014 rated it liked it
Excellent, easy to read history of Paris.
Damn, it was a real chore at times. Too much in a list form to keep me interested the whole time.
Jan 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
an excellent history of Paris from it's earliest beginnings as a tiny Roman settlement to the present day. I read this while on holiday in Paris!
Dave Ciskowski
May 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: shelved
An excellent overview of the history of Paris, with a unique approach that’s both engaging and informative. The book is structured around the linear history of Paris - the people, kings, political movements, and notable events - but Jones focuses these stories on how they affect the city and its structures. This makes for a book about the city of Paris and not the nation or its rulers or politics. The result is a strong sense of place; Jones draws direct connections to specific locations, and bu ...more
Aug 06, 2017 rated it liked it
Exceptionally researched. It would take me over a year to read this book well. If you're looking for a light narrative of Paris, this is not the book for you. If minutiae that diverges and converges and leaves you feeling unfocused and scrambling for Point A (because you often feel lost and unfocused whilst reading), then this book is for you.
Oct 16, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle
Having read the description and a number if positive 5 star reviews of this book, I chose it to develop my understanding of Paris as a city before a recent trip. I was expecting a mix of geographical history, economic history and social history, with more of a leaning towards the latter. I was disappointed. It is mainly geographical history, an overview of Paris's town planning over the millennia. For me it lacked the personal. There wasn't enough time given to how changes in the physicality of ...more
May 08, 2013 rated it liked it
This book is a biography of a city from Roman times to the present day. It is uneven but is worth sticking with it. He warms to the task in covering that great urban planner Haussmann who together with Napoleon III, remade the city and began what we call urbanism, he targeted the revitalization of the center city and build broad boulevards radiating out of the city. He also built beautiful train stations with the idea of radiating out by rail to reinforce that Paris was the heart of the country. ...more
Sarah Finch
May 08, 2012 rated it liked it
A good, solid tour through Parisian history, starting with Roman times and proceeding through the turn of this new century. Jones does an excellent job of navigating the tricky intersection between national and local politics that has made the city's history so complex, and particularly shines in his recounting of the time between Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. Much attention is justly paid to the architecture and the preservationist campaigns in Paris, particularly as it relates to Haussmann ...more
Apr 26, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2013
This really is a brilliant biography of one of my favourite cities. It makes me want to visit over and over again as well as help me to understand how the city "is like it is". Not the sort of book you devour in one sitting; more a book to dip into in between other books. I found that to get the most out of it I would read small parts at a time; there is so much detail and so much nuance. While organised in a broad timeline it does jump backwards and forwards within a century in order to tell th ...more
Jun 21, 2009 rated it really liked it
The other reviews are pretty dead on - very thorough, and I loved the discussion about the "sites of memory" in the intro and throughout the book (not that it's a novel subject, but I find that just knowing which places are identified by these terms - and who identifies them - reveals a lot about a place's history). The maps could've been better and should've been interspersed with the writing, and a lot of pictures had no captions. It's a LOT of information at once, and, as others have pointed ...more
Evan Snyder
Read this for my summer history class about the history of Paris. This tells you EVERYTHING you could possibly want to know about this history of the city, sometimes in exhausting detail. Some of that level of detail I could have done without. A bit slow and tedious reading at times, but overall interesting. Good for a class, but I wouldn't recommend picking it up on your own if you want a little context for your trip to Paris. Get Rick Steves for that (haven't read his Paris book, but I enjoyed ...more
Shane Senécal-Tremblay
Jan 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, reviewed
I love this book.

My girlfriend and I took turns reading this while living together in Paris. It was so well written, and fully captivated throughout. More, it unlocked a new depth of appreciation for the best city in the world.

From the city’s humble beginnings as a muddy island on île de la cite (home to the Parisi people) to its time as a Roman backwater (when it was Lutetia) ... through the merging of Montmartre and Paris, the Haussmann mass urban renovation, to today. Not a boring page.

Jan 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
An excellent incite into the revolutionary power of the urban Parisian zeitgeist. Jones' dictations about the vibrant relationship of Paris versus the French nation as a cultural indicator and national paramount are fascinating and revaltory towards the complex political and cultural beast that is France. A must read for any Revolutionaries seeking to comprehend their history, as well as those reverent Francophiles seeking to swim in Parisian lore.
Dec 30, 2010 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs
Recommended to Lynda by:
This is not a light read. You have to want to know everything there is to know about Paris. I have to wonder how easy it would have been to read if I had never been to Paris and didn't know much about the city.

Despite all of this I liked the book. It was interesting and filled with a lot of minutia that I did not know. Parts of the book are engrossing, but it is mainly a dry read.

Recommended for people who love travel and history.
Mike Clinton
Jul 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a straightforward historical narrative of the development of Paris since the earliest years of its habitation, written in an engaging style and supplemented with several additional 2-3 page subtopics per chapter that provide additional color and detail about an aspect of Parisian life and history relevant to that chapter's focus. It made an excellent companion to Graham Robb's more idiosyncratic "Parisans: An Adventure History of Paris."
Jul 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
A very long, somewhat exhausting, scholarly but almost always entertaining read. The chronological narrative is leavened by boxes on topics that are useful detours on subjects ranging from the Louvre to Josephine Baker. A fine book from which I learned a lot that will enhance my appreciation and understanding of Paris. But maybe too long for most casual readers, and I could have done with less detail on the early years and more on the 19th and 20th centuries.
Nov 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A thorough history of Paris as a unique entity, not seen particularly as the capital of France. It skips around a bit chronologically, which can be confusing given how dense the book is, but overall it is quite enjoyable to those who already have a basic understanding of Parisian history.
Upon finishing it I must say that I loved it... definitely for nerds, though.
Aug 15, 2007 rated it really liked it
A good, overall review. It gets a little biblical sometimes, in its tendency to cram people and events chronologically into sections. (And then so and so begot whatshisface, who did this and that, and then begot her, who slept with her father, who became King of France, and so they spaketh...)

But, you know, the Bible is a pretty good historical overview, too. So there you go.
Lady Knight
Nov 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Interesting look at Paris' history. Very detailed, and often I wanted to see the bigger picture of what was going on in France at the time, but the book stuck to its mission of only presenting Paris' attributes to history. Well done and worth the effort to read if you've ever been struck by the romance and culture of Paris.
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