Imagined London by Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen’s Imagined London has one of my favorite premises ever: an American reader who intimately knows and loves London through literature but has never actually visited the city finally does so. Once there, she immerses herself in both discovering the London of reality and reconciling it to the literary and historic London she has always imagined.
Unfortunately, perhaps, after the initial explanation of said reader’s (Quindlen’s) presence in London and the requisite descriptions of Quindlen’s unusually bookish youth wherein she came to love London, the book flags. It starts to feel like any other literary guide-book to the city. Fortunately, however, Quindlen is one of those writers whose tone never fails her readers even if the topic at hand does. She writes with a lovely combination of eloquence, chattiness, and encyclopedic knowledge of the literary canon that makes even this short guide-book of sorts pleasurable to read.
My favorite parts were definitely the first two or three chapters where the premise is explained and Quindlen relates her first actual moments in her long-loved city (it inevitably involves a skeptical cabbie and the Groucho Club). Chapter Two’s breathless recital of how long and how much Quindlen loves London is endearing more than informational, but quite enjoyable. It’s the later chapters that feel less like a eager dash and more like a trudge. Much like a day spent as a tourist, the longer you’re out there, the more tired you get.
This is also one of those books that, no matter how many books you have read, makes you feel terribly illiterate. A throw-away line about her son helping her to gather quotes about London for this book made me feel slightly better—Aha! She doesn’t have an encyclopedic and possibly photographic memory of all the books she’s ever read!—but it still made me want to read even more than I do just to keep up. Not a bad effect of reading Imagined London, to be sure!
It also made me quite eager to go there and get a better grasp of the city geographically. It’s all well and good to know a city intimately from words, but it is quite another to put it all together like a huge, physical jigsaw puzzle. I look forward to doing so with Imagined London in hand. This is definitely a good book to read either just prior to going to London or, even better, directly upon arriving. Quindlen is an excellent travel companion.