What makes a city a great literary city? Having a tradition of famous authors? A culture of bookstores and cafes and publishing houses and universities? Inspiring great books? Host Jacke Wilson is joined by Mike Palindrome, President of the Literature Supporters Club, for a discussion of the cities where literature finds itself most at home – including their choices for the world’s ten greatest literary cities.
Just got back from a quick trip to London. I’ve always loved London, but this time I was overwhelmed. Not from the bookstores one stumbles upon, although those were fantastic as usual. Not because I look out of my hotel window and think I see where the Beatles held their rooftop concert. Not because of the glories of clotted cream. No, there was something else this time.
There’s a passage somewhere in which an English author (Martin Amis?) attempts to convey the vastness of America to a U.K. audience.* He starts by saying that you could match up London with New York well enough, but after that you’d quickly start running out of reasonable comparisons. Boston would be the equivalent of Edinburgh. Chicago would be Manchester. Detroit would be Glasgow. But what would be comparable to Los Angeles? And you’d still have San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, Dallas, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston – the list goes on. If I remember correctly he ticked through several of these, each comparison getting more ludicrous, before delivering the clincher: “New Orleans would be Hull.”
That’s right. New Orleans is not Hull. And although I adored London, the jingo in me thought, “Jeez, you probably can’t even give them London.”
New York just seemed to rule everything, in those days. It was the engine that powered the world’s economy and its culture. Bigger, better, smarter, tougher. More excitement, more energy than anywhere else in the world.
That’s what I thought twenty years ago when I was traveling around the world, engaging in conversations with fellow backpackers in youth hostels:
“What’s the best city in the world?”
“Do you mean best or my favorite?”
“Well, let’s hear both – we have time!”
Rome was always my favorite, with London usually coming in second. A soft spot for Chicago. But I had to credit New York as the best, and so did everyone else, and we didn’t take arguments to the contrary very seriously. If there was a championship belt worn by cities, New York had claimed it – probably sometime in the 1940s, if not before. Since then there had not even been any serious contenders. New York reigned as the Greatest City in the World, fighting only with historical Rome and Athens and Paris and London for a position as Greatest City of All-Time.