September 21, 2016

Adam Gopnick on Jane Jacobs – 5

Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker does a reflection on Jane Jacobs’s life and ideas in her centenary year, with so many astute observations that PT will pull out a selection and run one every hour today.


Her later books rarely rise to the level of “Death and Life,” except when they recapitulate it. Having bitten off a huge chunk of city life and shared it with the world, she got into the habit of biting off more than anyone could hope to chew. In what was intended to be her masterpiece, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations,” she argued that agriculture began in cities, where seeds could be collected and plants hybridized. It’s a New Yorker’s argument—no Jersey truck farms without Manhattan diners—but it’s not one that has won general assent among historians of early civilizations.
As the years went on, and her halo only brightened, she was encouraged to vent on many subjects about which she was inexpert, and she tended to overrate her gift for ukases and opinions, which increasingly tended toward the fatuous. The book that brought me together with her was a dull sermon on an approaching “dark age”; her conversational aphorisms were infinitely better than the text. (“What will remain of us is cities and songs,” she said, poetically.)
The sad truth is that the saints we revere for thinking for themselves almost always end up thinking by themselves. We are disappointed to find that the self-taught are also self-centered, although a moment’s reflection should tell us that you have to be self-centered to become self-taught. (The more easily instructed are busy brushing their teeth, as pledged.) The independent-minded philosopher-saints are so sure of themselves that they often lose the discipline of any kind of peer review, formal or amateur. They end up opinionated, and alone.

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  1. If there is no time in the article for a discussion (or even a listing) of Jacobs’ other work, then it was probably better not to comment at all, certainly the impression given here, that there is nothing worthwhile from Jacobs outside of ‘The Death and Life’ does readers an enormous disservice.
    I highly recommend readers (at least those who have diverse interests beyond just urban planning) to seek out all of her work.

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