Cities and the Imagination: A Reading List

City from above

Some cities are surrounded by history, rumor, and mythology to the point where they practically feel like the stuff of fiction. Other cities and spaces have evaporated into memory, leaving little trace behind of the tactile details that made them famous. Others still may have been enhanced or distorted by legends and fiction, rendered unrecognizable in the popular imagination. 

Here’s a look at a host of works of nonfiction that explore that porous territory between the cities of the imagination and the cities we can potentially visit. Some explore the search for potentially imaginary places, and the real locales that inspired them, while others take a more ruminative tone, delving into how real places achieved a mythic stature. (It’s worth noting that a number of memorable novels have ventured into similar territory, like Invisible Cities, Pym, Found Audio, and The Vorrh.) Here’s a look at ten books that can be found at the place where memory, geography, and mythology converge.


Charlie English, The Storied City

At the center of Charlie English’s The Storied City is the city of Timbuktu–an almost mythic place for a host of Western explorers, but also a very real location to the residents of Mali. English’s book explores the gulf between reality and perception, while also telling a gripping tale of the efforts to preserve an abundance of ancient manuscripts in the present day. 


David Grann, The Lost City of Z

In his acclaimed book The Lost City of Z, adapted for film by director James Gray in 2016, David Grann told the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who traveled extensively in South America in the early 20th century. While there, he became obsessed with finding a mysterious ancient city in Brazil, an expedition that would come to a fateful end. 


Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts

The evolution of certain cities, as the terrain around them shifts, can be the stuff of fascinating narratives. Such is the case with Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts, which tells the story of the title location, located in northern Greece, and how shifts in territory and larger geopolitical questions caused it to play a pivotal role at several junctures in European history. 


Joanna Kavenna, The Ice Museum

The concept of Thule began in the time of ancient Greece and Rome, when it referred to a land far to the north; it’s one that’s had staying power up to recent times, sometimes to unsettling effect. In her book The Ice Museum, Joanna Kavenna travels to some of the northernmost places on the planet to explore the nature of Thule, and what its legacy might be. 


Robert Silverberg, The Realm of Prester John

For several centuries in the Middle Ages, legends persisted of a Christian ruler far from the kingdoms of Europe. Some reports placed him in Asia, while others suggested that he might rule over part of Ethiopia. In his exploration of the truth behind this legend, Robert Silverberg examines the place in which history and mythology overlap, leading to a greater analysis of how the past can become distorted.


Jan Morris, Hav

Jan Morris’s long career chronicling expeditions to distant parts of the globe has been a storied and acclaimed one. And thus, reading Hav, Morris’s account of a visit to an isolated city abounding with political tensions and the weight of history, one can find abundant echoes of any number of real-world metropolises. In this case, though, Morris’s narrative is fiction–albeit one that resonates more than most travel literature. 


Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La

The idea of Shangri-la, a lost city in the mountains near Tibet, first appeared in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon in the 1930s. (It also lent its title to an excellent Kinks song.) Mitchell Zuckoff’s book alludes to this as it chronicles the struggle for survival of a group of American soldiers whose plane crash-landed in an isolated community in New Guinea–and the dramatic narrative that followed. 


Douglas Preston, The Lost City of the Monkey God

For centuries, rumors have persisted of a mysterious city located within the jungles of Honduras–Christopher S. Stewart’s acclaimed Jungleland has explored part of its history. In his book The Lost City of the Monkey God, Douglas Preston describes an expedition to uncover the historical fact behind this city–and unravel some of the conflicting accounts of it that have arisen.


Colin Woodard, The Republic of Pirates

Many lost or storied cities have taken on almost utopian aspects in their retelling, offering an account of a city far ahead of its time or oddly relevant to the present moment. In Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates, he finds contemporary resonance in an unexpected place: the story of how a group of pirates organized a surprisingly egalitarian society in the Caribbean–and how they ran afoul of the empires of the day. 


Melissa Holbrook Pierson, The Place You Love is Gone

In the three sections that make up her book The Place You Love is Gone, Melissa Holbrook Pierson charts out the way that vanished places can slowly ebb into the stuff of legend. Here, her focus is on the United States, and whether she’s writing about communities lost to memory or actually removed from existence, she provides a fascinating primer in the line between cities that are and cities that were. 


This article first appeared on Signature Reads.

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