I should explain why I’m making it public; why am I being so arrogant as to not simply recommend books but to insist that everybody read them? Well, for one thing, “books everybody should read” sounds a lot better than “books I kinda, sorta, think a few people might like to take a look at.” For another, that’s what I think when I read one of these; everybody should read this. I make no claim to never have a ridiculously arrogant mood. Third, these are books that changed the way I think, expanded it, enlivened it—they may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth a shot. Anyway, how else are you going to find out about awesome books that are no longer new?
Geography traces the history of American suburbia from the Puritan’s land use practices and philosophy on wilderness on up to the early nineteen nineties. I had always assumed that what problems exist in American land use, architecture, and community structure are accidental, random in nature. For example, I’d noticed that most modern buildings are ugly, and many older buildings are beautiful, and I’d figured fashions had simply changed. It seemed a puzzling direction for fashion to go, but then I’ve never understood fashion, so what do I know? Kunstler explained that flat-topped, unadorned buildings came into fashion just after World War I, when educated people, including leading architects, had come to doubt that anything other than ugly functionality was real. In time, everyone got used to the look, and of course simple boxes are cheaper to build. A sad story, but I love knowing that there is a reason—I’m not crazy for thinking that modern industrial-style architecture is ugly, and the architects who originated the look weren’t stupid or ignorant. They built ugly buildings on purpose.
One of James Kunstler’s central ideas is that communities are economies, which means that anything that destabilizes local human-scaled economies (such as our car culture) also unavoidably destroys local communities- makes them become “nowheres.” The first chapters each tell the history of a different aspect of the problem. Later chapters include detailed descriptions of what specific representative cities have done wrong, what specific representative cities have done well, and small-scale experimental attempts to make new communities right, minimizing the destructive effects of sprawl and fostering local economy and community space. By reframing American history around multiple versions of the story of our use of space and our creation of places, Kunstler gives us a new way to see.
The book is written in a clear, readable style, and its ideas are easy to absorb, but a reader should not do so blindly. Many of Kunstler’s arguments are emotional, based largely on his use of adjectives. You can tell that the author doesn’t like something, but you can’t always tell why, so you can’t easily decide whether he is right. As a call to awareness this book is vivid and insightful, but it shouldn’t be regarded as a thorough and rigorous treatment of its subject. It does not need to be; once you, as a reader, are aware, you can always go read other books to fill in the details.
Geography of Nowhere is one of those books everyone should read, since the dynamics it discusses are so close to the heart of what goes wrong in this country, and this kind of insight is absolutely necessary to generating solutions. Kunstler’s own solutions are vague and preliminary, and he presents them indirectly, by profiling what he sees as successes. He seems far from certain that the cultural tide that has brought us here will turn on its own, but he does note that an economy based on an endless supply of fossil fuel can’t last much longer. While bleak, there is some comfort in the notion that if we can’t halt the juggernaut of car culture, it will at least shortly halt itself.
Kunstler, J. H. (1993). The geography of nowhere. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.