I recently finished Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography. The book takes an interesting approach to the subject of London by presenting the user discrete views onto London. Each chapter turns the reader’s gaze to one aspect of the City and then follows that subject throughout London’s history. This technique gives Ackroyd a chance to not only tell tight stories about the City, but also to deftly build larger themes from smaller evidence without presumptuous declaration or relying on facts not entered into evidence.

These larger themes were for me the most interesting and most maddening part of the book. Ackroyd does an excellent job of showing the dogged persistence of City. Building and districts maintain their life and function for centuries, even as governments and even nations rise and fall around them. Districts are home to the same peoples and families for centuries. Place names of deeply obscure origin are suddenly explicated by the discovery of centuries-old artifacts. The City takes on the character of slow-tempered Mammon with near-infinite inertia. Conquest, destruction, plague, fire, and the slow crush of man’s pretensions to planning have all utterly failed to change anything about London’s basic workings. London just assimilates all these things in stride, heals its wounds in time, and goes on much as it did before.

The sociology of this phenomenon, even without Ackroyd’s pseudo-mystical psychogeography, is a fascinating subject and one that Ackroyd leaves largely unstudied. He points to this persistence of London’s life and purpose several times, but never really sits down to tease out his ideas on the subject. He instead relies on his historically longitudinal vignettes to make the case for a City of infinite will and with a body, life, and plan all its own.

When Ackroyd does stop briefly to speculate about London’s character writ large, it’s clear that he feels deeply ambivalent about the place. He’s quick to point out the armies of the poor that have occupied the city for its entire history. He seems to look down on the avarice and constant human energy of the City. He sees the city as a kind of monstrous other that eats its children and disregards anything resembling human decency. And yet, in the midst of that, he openly marvels at London’s beauty and majesty and revels in its ability to foster some of mankind’s greatest achievements and pursuits. London is a city so full of life and affirmation that even Ackroyd at his most cynical can’t help but quote Samuel Johnson’s famous line: “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life.”

And while you may never tire of London, you might tire of its Biography after five or six hundred pages. Towards the end of the book, some of the essays begin to retread territory and do get a bit shopworn and familiar. After seeing so many threads meticulously picked up, spun, laid out, and then left, I started wishing he’d take the last hundred pages or so to break from his form and at least try to tie a few of them together and to tease out some greater truths that he’d only hinted at in his many essays.

Ultimately, though, Ackroyd’s meticulous study of the many faces of London’s history is extremely valuable. Anyone who is interested in London as an entity or a historical force, or simply besotted (as I am) with the City as a place unlike any in the world, should definitely read it. Just be prepared for an army of small scenes and for Ackroyd to keep all his most important big ideas maddeningly to himself.