Category Archives: Books

COMING SOON | Poor Richard Volume 3

“This one book will do more for some readers than four years of higher education.” – Andy Boenau, Foreword to Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners

Praise for the first two volumes of the Poor Richard series of almanacs for architects and planners by MARK DAVID MAJOR

“Worthwhile”  •  “Thought-provoking”  •  “Readers will love” Poor Richard in “following both Benjamin Franklin and Ambrose Bierce”
(Planning Magazine and Portland Book Review).

“The rhythms of the city’s streets are musical. Listen.” – Poor Richard

Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners offers more common sense proverbs, astute observations, and general rules of thumbs about architecture, urban design, town planning, and much more in the third and final volume of the Poor Richard series. Author Mark David Major blends original ideas with adapted wisdom in an easy-to-read manner designed to spark deeper thought about hearth and home, streets and cities, and people and society. Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of the built environment. Poor Richard’s witticisms are often eloquent, sometimes biting, occasionally opaque in the absence of deeper reflection, and always insightful. They offer a valuable resource for the entire year, a clarion call and warning for everyone involved in the creation of our built environments to embrace their better angels and reject the worse demons of human nature.

The clear message of Poor Richard, Yet Another Almanac for Architects and Planners, with foreword by Andy Boenau (author of Emerging Trends in Transportation Planning), is we can do better and we must do better for the built environment and our cities.

Available soon from Amazon, CreateSpace, and the Kindle Store.

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Top 10 ‘Must See’ Documentary Films for Architects and Planners

Top 10 ‘Must See’ Documentary Films for Architects and Planners
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A

Recently, The Outlaw Urbanist published the article “Top 10 ‘Must See’ Films for Architects and Planners” with reference to the influence of the built environment on film-grammars in support of cinematic narratives. However, there are other films (especially documentaries) worth seeing with a direct or indirect bearing on the built environment today. This is the purpose of today’s list of ‘must see’ documentary films for architects and planners. There are a lot of documentary films dedicated to specific architects. Most are vanity projects built on the ego of said architect, which lack much universal application for buildings or cities. You will not find such films on this list. The purpose of this list is value. What is informative and worth your time?

HONORABLE MENTION WITH WARNING LABEL
Inside Job (2010)
If you are well-informed, then there are interesting nuggets of information buried in the 2010 documentary Inside Job directed by Charles Ferguson with narration by Matt Damon (one of my favorite actors) about the housing crash and 2008 Financial Crisis. However, if you are uninformed or only casually acquainted with the facts (see below), then Inside Job is dangerous apologia propaganda for the left’s complicity in the cataclysmic events costing millions of people their jobs and homes. No one should be allowed to watch this film without first reading The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. Damon, his wife, and four daughters lived in an 8,890 square foot home (1,778 SF per person) in southern California at the time of filming. Yeah, sorry Matt, that’s being part of the problem, not the solution.

MUST SEE
10. The Dynamic American City (1956)
This 25-minute 1956 educational film created by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is worth viewing for contradictory reasons: 1) it gets everything wrong about vibrant urbanism; and, 2) it is a propaganda masterpiece on par with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will in using associative and dis-associative imagery and narration to hammer home its central message of ‘building up and out’ (it is right there in the Intro graphic) for making fast money in real estate built on the twin premises of slum clearing and suburbanization. If Joseph Goebbels had been an American developer, he would have been proud. For anyone with an ounce of common sense, it is like watching a car crash in real time: horrifying but you can’t take your eyes off it. Do you want to live in old stables or “on the frontier”? Even today, some Americans refuse to let go of the Big Lie in this film. You can watch it on YouTube here.

8/9. Too Big to Fail (2011)/The Big Short (2015)
These aren’t documentaries but dramatized accounts about the housing crash and 2008 Financial Crisis. Nonetheless, they are well done, littered with nuanced performances, and even-handed in providing public and private sector perspectives about events. They successfully manage the herculean task of being both entertaining and informative. Too Fail to Fail (2011) centers around Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s (William Hurt in an outstanding performance) actions to advert another Great Depression. The Big Short (2015) centers around a few people (all strong performances from Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell) in the financial sector who saw the approaching cliff, bet against the housing market and banks, and won big though not without a great deal of stress while encountering record levels of stupidity along the way. The latter is based on Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, which we also thoroughly recommend.

7. Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments, and Modernism (2016)
Part of Jonathan Meades’ (above) series of BBC Four documentaries (Jerry Building and Joe Building aka Nazi and Stalinist architecture, respectively) about architecture and planning under totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century, Ben Building: Mussolini, Monuments, and Modernism (2016) is the best in terms of quality and quantity of material. Simply put, Italian architects under Mussolini were doing much more interesting things in terms of design, which leads Meades to more even-handed commentary about his subject. The other two documentaries are worth seeing. The first suffers from a lack of existing/built examples (and typical British vitriol about all things German; Nazi or otherwise) and the second (Soviet) from an excess of questionable architectural taste. You can watch Ben Building on YouTube here before the BBC files a copyright infringement claim.

6. The Human Face of Big Data (2014)
This is a wide-ranging PBS documentary about the applications and implications of Big Data in the 21st century. As such, The Human Face of Big Data (2014) concentrates about half of its 56-minute running time on issues pertinent to cities, e.g. mapping social-economic data, Smart Cities, consumer tailoring, etc. Some of the researchers are missing – or fail to comment on – the obvious. For example, the documentary briefly shows data mapping of repeat offenders in Brooklyn NY, which is clearly mid-20th-century public housing to anyone familiar with Modernist building footprints. While it does not offer any definitive answers to the deeper questions raised by Big Data, it is still a useful exercise in asking questions about what it all might mean for you and our cities in the future. Watch the trailer below.

5. Super Skyscrapers: Building the Future (2014)
This is one episode in the 4-part series of PBS’ Super Skyscrapers (2014). The other episodes are interesting (mostly for their overkill in terms of design and engineering). However, this episode about the Leadenhall Building in the City of London designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is a brilliant explanation about the way cutting-edge computer modeling and manufacturing processes are dramatically changing the construction industry in the 21st century. Due to the constrained site, every piece of this building was manufactured offsite and then transported in a precise order for assembly on-site, i.e. no concrete pour. The hydraulic shifting of the building by a few degrees into a vertical position is an especially jaw-dropping sequence. Watch this episode on YouTube before PBS files a copyright infringement claim here.

4. The Human Scale (2012)
This 2012 documentary is nominally about thinkers, architects, and urban planners discussing ways to increase human interaction in cities but, in particular, The Human Scale (2012) is about Danish architect Jan Gehl’s teaching and research about urbanism over the last four decades. In this, it veers a little too closely sometimes to the ‘myth of the architectural genius’ folie associated with most architectural documentary films. Ignore the hero worship and listen to what is being said about people and cities. There are plenty of common sense ideas and solutions contained in The Human Scale, which makes it must-see viewing for architects and planners.

3. Poynton Regenerated (2013)
This short 15-minute film features urban designer and movement specialist Ben Hamilton-Baillie explaining the existing, seemingly intractable traffic, pedestrian, and land use problems in the village center of Poynton, England. Then, he outlines a new, radical plan for a Shared Space design concept in the village center. Plan implementation and construction is a great success, though not without a lot of skepticism along the way. The film is good at explaining the basic premise of Shared Space, which is if you design for people being stupid, then they will tend to act stupid but if you design for people being smart, they will tend to be smart in self-regulating urban systems. A good measure of this film’s success is the way-out-of-proportion fear it has provoked in reaction. You can watch Poynton Regenerated on YouTube here.

2. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)
There were several issues (racism, regulatory failures, design and planning flaws, demographics, suburbanization, and so on and so on and so on) involved in the demise of the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing Complex in St. Louis, Missouri, which led to its famous televised demolition in 1972. This 2011 documentary does a good job covering many of them. The testimony of former residents is enlightening, especially if you listen with a keen ear about their experiences in spatial terms to better understand how architectural design/planning played a role in the social malaise at Pruitt-Igoe. You do need to be careful about the testimony of former residents who were children at the time (in the section titled “Control”). It is clear they were not privy to their parents’ decisions at the time about securing government assistance though it does ably demonstrate how it appeared from the child’s point of view. This 1 1/2 hour documentary is definitely worth the time and demands your attention. You can watch The Pruitt-Igoe Myth on YouTube here.

1. The Social Life of Public Spaces (1980)
This 1980 documentary film written, directed, and starring William H. Whyte (based on his 1972 book of the same name) is still the most important documentary about architecture, urban design, and planning today. Like Jane Jacobs before him, Whyte does something that many people still oddly consider beneath them to better understand how people really use public space. He goes out and watches them. Radical, huh? Does Whyte get everything right? No, but he does get much right, which is more than most architects and planners can claim. You can watch The Social Life of Public Spaces on Vimeo here.

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RE-POST | 20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#1-10)

RE-POST | 20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#1-10)
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
(Originally posted January 28, 2013)

Here is Part 2 of the “20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#1-10)” article, originally posted on January 28, 2013. Read Top 20 ‘Must-Read’ Texts for Urban Planners (#11-20) here!

Plenty of Holiday gift ideas here!

10. “The Origin and Spread of the Grid-Pattern Town” (1946) by Dan Stanislawski
An old text, perhaps obscure to many and only familiar to a few, “The Origin and Spread of the Grid-Pattern Town” is one of the earliest and most thorough reviews of the evolution of regular grid town planning in the world. Yes, Stanislawski subscribes the spread of regular grid town planning to a process of historical diffusion, which Spiro Kostoff (see below) correctly points out nobody believes in any more. Despite this flaw, Stanislawski’s review is surprisingly comprehensive, for the most part. Stanislawski does seem to gloss over medieval town planning, see Maurice Beresford’s 1967 New Towns of the Middle Ages: Town Plantation in England, Wales and Gascony. However, some later writers ignore all together clear examples of regular grid planning in certain regions of the world (the Orient, for example). Stanislawski’s article is still a valuable resource today for any reader interested in the regular grid as long as they are careful about filtering out some of his misplaced – discredited today – ideas (for example, historical diffusion or the importance of Hippodamus). Available for download here with registration.

9. “Savannah and the Issue of Precedent: City Plan as Resource” (1993) by Stanford Anderson
John Reps in his historical narrative of American town planning (see below) is enchanted with the historical ward plan of Savannah, as are many architects, urban designers, and planners. Reps is equally mystified (and a little despondent) about why the Savannah plan was not more influential in the history of American town planning. In “Savannah and the Issue of Precedent: City Plan as Resource,” Anderson offers a succinct and brilliant analysis about how the ward plan of Savannah operated in terms of street alignments and building constitution working together to structure the outside-to-inside ‘assimilation’ of strangers into the town (principally in relation to the port). In generic terms, Savannah appears to be quite typical of a lot of waterfront settlements in American planning. However, its detailed specifications for squares and constitution is rigid, making it an inflexible model for early American town development (for example, compared to the flexibility of the Spanish Laws of the Indies model). Anderson’s article should be on the standard reading list for any academic program in planning. The article is available on Google Books here. It appears in the book Settlements in the Americas: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, which is available for purchase on Amazon here.

8. The Practice of Local Government Planning (2000)
It is one thing to complain about how planning works in the United States. However, it is hypocritical to complain without really understanding how planning works in the United States. The Practice of Local Government Planning offers a clear solution. For years, the various incarnations of the “green book” have been the go-to source for American planners to immerse themselves in the full scope of their profession in the United States. This Municipal Management Series book is the first one any planner will open when seeking to pass the AICP exam. It is comprehensive and detailed. Warning: it is a very, very dry read. It is also extremely careful to remain neutral when presenting a picture about the way things work, i.e. this is what it is, not this is the right way to do it. In this sense, it is value-free and empty at its core. Nonetheless, it remains an invaluable resource for any planner, or anyone wanting to understand planners. Available to purchase on Amazon here.

7. The City Assembled: The Elements of Urban Form Through History (1992) by Spiro Kostoff

6. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History (1991) by Spiro Kostoff

5. Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning (1979) by John W. Reps

4. The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States (1965) by John W. Reps
Kostoff’s The City Shaped/The City Assembled are crucial books about the history of town planning in the world for any urban planner to have on their bookshelves. Reps’ The Making of Urban America/Cities of the American West about the history of town planning in the United States are crucial books for any urban planner to also have on their bookshelves. If an urban planner does not have these books on their bookshelves, it is reasonable to question the quality of said planner. There are other good historical narratives out there on the subject (Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s The Matrix of Man or Eisner and Gallion’s The Urban Pattern, for example). However, Kostoff and Reps’ books are the most comprehensive and thorough for their particular subjects. All four books incorporate hundreds of plans/plats and photographs to tell the story of town planning in the United States and world at large. They also offer detailed historical information (especially Reps) about the people and events involved in building our cities. Sometimes they are insightful and sometimes they are mistaken. For example, despite his protestations about the dichotomy so prevalent in town planning, Kostoff remains firmly entrapped in that dichotomy, i.e. ‘organic’ and ‘regular’ cities. Reps correctly points out the historical importance of William Penn’s plan of Philadelphia but misstates the reasons, assigning to Philadelphia what should have more appropriately been given to the Nine Square Plan of New Haven and the Spanish Law of the Indies, which Kostoff correctly emphasizes (though we are discussing subtle but important degrees of difference instead of a chasm in thought between both writers). When he ventures away from historical narrative and facts into the realm of opinion, Reps is often prone to undervalue the functional power of regular grid. However, these are endlessly useful texts for anyone interested in cities. The collection of plans and other historical documents (e.g. bird’s eye views) are a wonderful resource for any planner to have readily at hand. Kostof books available for purchase from Amazon here and here. Reps books available for purchase from Amazon here and here.

3. Space is the Machine: A Configurational Theory of Architecture (1996) by Bill Hillier
A purist could argue that anyone interested in space syntax should start with The Social Logic of Space (1984) by Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson. The Social Logic of Space is an important book where Hillier and Hanson spell out a lot of groundwork for the theoretical and mathematical foundations of space syntax. However, they do so to a level of detail that some readers might find off-putting. Even Hillier and Hanson admit one of its chapters is practically unreadable because it is so dry with mathematical set theory. If you want to learn about the space syntax approach and some of its early, important findings without getting bogged down in the detail, then you are better served by starting with Hillier’s Space is the Machine. Besides, Hillier is always careful about repeating the ‘big picture’ items that arose from The Social Logic of Space (beady ring settlements, restricted random process, and so on), so you won’t miss too much. For planners, the most important chapters in Space is the Machine are about cities as movement economies, whether architecture can cause social malaise, and the fundamental city. There are plenty of goodies for architects as well. Space is the Machine is a must-read for anyone serious about a scientific approach to the built environment. (NOTE: Original illustrations by yours truly). Available for paperback purchase on Amazon here. You can download the full book as a PDF here.

2. The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment (1925) by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess
One of the planning profession’s biggest problems is the Chicago School (the sociologists Park and Burgess and their colleague, Homer Hoyt, see sector model of city growth, who together were the founders of human ecology) got so much right from the very beginning that there wasn’t anywhere for planning to go from there but downhill. Of course, planning theory proceeded to accomplish this downhill spiral with great vigor and spectacularly bad results (see the second half of the 20th century). With the advent of the computer processor, Park and Burgess’ approach may appear somewhat quaint to modern eyes. However, the essentials about cities are there. More importantly, Park and Burgess never divorce the socio-economic nature of the city from its physical form. They view them as intimately bound together. An important book and somewhat underrated in today’s world by planners, though it’s difficult to understand why or how that should be the case. Available to purchase on Amazon here.

1. The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs
Big surprise, huh? These days it seems like anyone interested in cities is obsessed with Jane Jacobs, either in implementing and promoting her ideas or feverishly going to ridiculous lengths trying to refute them (one might call it Jacobs Derangement Syndrome). Indeed, this obsession in itself is a testament to the power of her book. Ironically, for its time, the most novel thing Jacobs did was she dared to look out her window and observe how things were really working out there on the street. It is a sad statement on the planning profession that this was somehow viewed as a sacrilege when the book was first published and, to a certain extent, this perception endures today. I mean, how dare she actually suggest we evaluate (and, by implication, take responsibility for) the social and economic consequences of our planning decisions. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the essential book for any planner. Available to purchase on Amazon here.

There you go!

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RE-POST | 20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#11-20)

RE-POST | 20 Must-Read Texts for Urban Planners (#11-20)
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
(Originally posted January 22, 2013)

Lists are often a handy tool to spark a discussion, debate, or even an argument. The purpose of this list is pretty straightforward, i.e. what should you have read. Of course, in limiting the list to a mere 20 texts (books and articles), there is no possible way it can be exhaustive. There are a lot of interesting texts out there from a lot of different perspectives (some better than others). It is also true that compiling such a list will inevitably reveal the particular biases of the person preparing the compilation (like revealing your iTunes playlist). In the end, it is only their opinion. There’s no way around it. This list demonstrates a clear bias towards texts about the relationship between the physical fabric of cities and their spatio-functional nature with a particular emphasis on first-hand observation of how things really work. Because of this, perhaps the most surprising thing about this list is how few texts there are by people who identify themselves as planners (or perhaps not, depending on your perspective). Finally, as with most lists, it is wise to reserve the right to amend/update said list in order to allow for any unfortunate oversights. Having said that, the list is an absolute good. The list is life. All around its margins lies suburban sprawl. Let the making of lists begin…

20. Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (1972) by Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown
Venturi et al expand the arguments first outlined in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture in 1966 to the urban level with their seminal study of Las Vegas. Only on these terms, it is an interesting read. However, dig a little deeper beneath the surface and into their wonderful series of figure-ground representations of spatial functioning on, along and adjacent to the Las Vegas Strip. You will discover Venturi et al concede – almost casually – the functional dynamics of how the strip operates to the realm of urban space and pattern in order to quickly focus on their arguments on what really interests them, i.e. the semantic nature of architectural form. A surface reading of only what Venturi et al writes misses a lot of the richness found within since there is a whole other book hidden based on what they are not saying but merely showing you. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

concept_dwelling19. The Concept of Dwelling: on the way to figurative architecture (1985) by Christian Norberg-Schulz
One always has to be careful with phenomenology because, by definition, almost everything written is subjective and open to vast differences in interpretation. However, much like the previous entry on this list, if a reader is willing to dig beneath of the surface and give thoughtful consideration about what, at first, appears to be purposefully opaque writing, then often there are rich rewards to be discovered. Norberg-Schulz’s The Concept of Dwelling is one of the best examples. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

18. Ladders, Architecture at Rice 34 (1996) by Albert Pope
It is something of a mystery why this book seems to be sorely under-appreciated and underrated outside of Houston, Texas. Pope’s study about the physical pattern of the American urban fabric is a fascinating read. Urban planners – especially American ones – could do a lot worse than read an entire book examining the physical pattern of the urban fabric in cities they are suppose to be planning; in fact, they have and do so regularly. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

17. Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning (1983) by M. Christine Boyer
Boyer’s The City of Collective Memory seems to overshadow her earlier book, which is a shame. Her history of the planning profession in the United States is a devastating and powerful critique that is as relevant today as when it was first published. It is also a much better book than The City of Collective Memory. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

16. America (1988) by Jean Baudrillard
The best planners are good sociologists and the best sociologists are great observers. Baudrillard was one of the best and keenest observers of human society and its meaning. Baudrillard wraps his observations within a flamboyant, often elegant, and occasionally beautiful use of language. It is not always clear whether the flurries of linguistic gymnastics are really his or is the result of translating from French into English. However, the results often amount to genius. In America, Baudrillard’s compare and contrast of Paris, New York, and Los Angeles yields rich rewards to any planner who dares to pay attention. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

15. Streets and Patterns (2005) by Stephen Marshall
The first half of Marshall’s book is a brilliant review and analysis of where we are and how we got here. The second half – focusing on possible solutions – descends into being only interesting. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

14. City: Rediscovering the Center (1989) by William H. Whyte
Whyte’s study of informal, social interaction in public spaces is a case study in urban observation that any planner should seek to take into account and emulate. Yes, sometimes Whyte’s conclusions are too localized about the attributes of the space itself than how it fits into the pattern of a larger urban context. However, at other times, his findings are remarkable for their common sense. For example, people in public spaces will move chairs for the purpose of promoting interaction rather than locate their interactions where chairs are located or tend to locate social interaction in areas of high movement like street corners. Anyone who has ever tried to move their way through to party – mumbling to themselves “why do people have to stop here to talk” – will understand many of Whyte’s observations about human nature and informal interaction are rock solid. Whyte’s City can almost be read as a companion piece to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

13. “The Architecture of Community: Some New Proposals on the Social Consequences of Architectural and Planning Decisions” (1987) by Julienne Hanson and Bill Hillier, Architecture and Comportement, Architecture and Behaviour, 3(3): 251-273.
There are many texts by a lot of people about why space syntax is important. However, few have driven home the point more powerfully and succinctly than this early article by Hanson and Hillier about the social consequences of design decisions for Modern housing estates (projects) in the UK. In doing so, Hanson and Hillier add considerable intellectual and quantitative heft to Jane Jacobs’ arguments about urban safety and “eyes on the street” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This article will probably be obscure to most planners, especially in the USA. The real crime is it’s rarely read outside of the space syntax community itself. Download the article here.

12. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (2000) by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck
A purist will probably argue when it comes to New Urbanism, start with The New Urbanism by Peter Katz. If you’re not really keen on appetizers, then go straight to the main meal. Suburban Nation is not only about what is the New Urbanism but also delves into the argument about why we need the New Urbanism today. New Urbanism does not always get it right. Does anybody? However, there shouldn’t be any doubt that it is heading in the right direction and that is a huge achievement in itself. Click here to purchase on Amazon.

11. “Transect Planning” (2002) by Andres Duany and Emily E. Talen. APA Journal, 68(3): 245-266.
Duany and Talen elegantly translate a fundamental aspect about the spatio-functioning of streets tailored to urban form into understandable terms for public officials, urban designers and planners who are still trapped in – or refuse to leave – the box of the Euclidean zoning model and the arbitrary roadway classifications almost universally associated with it over the last half-century. In terms of the prevailing planning paradigm afflicting our cities, transect planning is the metaphorical equivalent of Duany and Talen pushing a Trojan horse inside the city gates. The more applied, the less tenable becomes the roadway classifications associated with the Euclidean zoning model. Beware of New Urbanists bearing gifts (i.e. methodology). You can read the abstract here.

Read Top 20 ‘Must-Read’ Texts for Urban Planners (#1-10) here!

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Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books

Need ideas for gifts this holiday season? The Outlaw Urbanist is here to help you!

The Sovereignty used to be the author’s blog for promoting my science fiction novel Mars Rising (available for purchase on Amazon here). I retired the site a couple of years ago for a new author’s website (www.markdmajor.com) since my published books quickly spread beyond the genre of science fiction to include theatre, poetry, and children’s books as well as the Poor Richard series of almanacs about architecture and urbanism (available for purchase on the menu to your right).

By far and away, the most popular articles on the old blog were the “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books” and “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books” posts. Given their popularity, I want to make these articles newly available on The Outlaw Urbanist blog even though they are not strictly about architecture and urbanism. I originally wrote the “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books” on August 11, 2013. Below is the second article, “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books”, which I originally wrote on September 22, 2013. Without further ado and only a few revisions: here is…

Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Non-fiction Books
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A
(Originally appeared on The Sovereignty blog, September 22, 2013)

Previously, I posted an article on this blog about what I believed were the Top Ten fiction books everyone should have read. In that article was a promise to later produce a second Top Ten list of non-fiction books based on the same criteria. I should be clear that this selection is not solely based on historical importance; otherwise, people like Charles Darwin might populate the list with some extremely dry, hard sloughs such as On the Origin of Species. Accessibility is certainly an important criterion in the selection of the books for this list. These are books that everyone can and should enjoy reading, not just specialists in particular fields. Once again, I am also avoiding controversial choices such as religious or political texts. For example, the Holy Bible and the Koran are certainly important religious and historical documents, which many people have read. However, I do not want to start a flame war on my blog simply because I ranked one above the other. The same is true for controversial political texts such as Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler or The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, both of which have in common being hard sloughs of incoherent garbage; again, important historical documents, no doubt, but not exactly must-read material. I am also blatantly cheating by pairing some books together and some selections are multi-volume works. I make no apologies for cheating in this manner because there are too many good non-fiction books that everyone should read. With that, let the making of lists begin…

HONORABLE MENTION:

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
Machiavelli’s The Prince is still the essential handbook for leadership, albeit in a democratic society, dictatorship or the high school council, see Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the film, Election. Its lessons are still relevant today across the entire political spectrum. It is this, which truly speaks to its greatness as a written work of non-fiction. It is not just political leadership. There are all sorts of leadership lessons in The Prince, be it of a business or personal nature, which tends to come down to the maxim it is better to be respected than loved and, sometimes, it is better to be feared than respected. Purchase on Amazon here.

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
This might seem like an esoteric and obscure choice for many people but this book about the marriage of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West  and her romantic affairs with women  is a fascinating read. It demands your attention. It also serves as a peek into the early twentieth century Bloomsbury Group of literary writers and artists in London (such as Virginia Woolf, with whom Sackville-West had an affair), which Sackville-West was associated in a peripheral manner. You would not think it would be a compelling subject but, in fact, it is very much so. Nicolson draws the story about his parents’ marriage together from letters and interviews; it is well worth your time. Purchase on Amazon here.

10. 1776/John Adams by David G. McCullough
These two works are companion pieces in many ways since they are, for the most part, telling the same story but with a different emphasis. John Adams, of course, focuses on the entire career of the Founding Father and Second President of the United States. In this, it provides a grounded and broad sweep of the first 50 years of American history as well as the 10 years preceding the American Revolution. McCullough’s portrait of Abigail Adams is especially vibrant, which proves that behind every great man is often a great woman. 1776 focuses on a single year of the American Revolution though McCullough does fill-in before and after this date within the narrative. In 1776, you get much more of the story of George Washington and the struggles of the Continental Army. McCullough also fleshes out the different perspectives of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin in drafting the Declaration of Independence to the one already sketched in John Adams. John Adams is denser, covering a lot of material and years (including the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson after both had left public life, which is fascinating). John Adams digs deep into the details. 1776 is a faster and easier read, painting the broad strokes of this quintessentially American story. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

9. A Bridge Too Far by Cornelius Ryan/Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose
Yes, Ryan’s book gives short shrift to the American role in Operation Market Garden. Yes, he tells the story very much from the British point-of-view. It elevates examples of British heroism (of which there were plenty examples requiring no such embellishment) and makes apologies for British failings (specifically, Montgomery’s errors) in planning Operation Market Garden. Eisenhower more or less sidelined Montgomery from Allied war planning after Market Garden, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about where to lay the blame (see #1 on this list below). Nonetheless, the story about this risky offensive strategy is a fascinating read. After reading A Bridge Too Far, you will wonder how the Allies ever won the war in the face of such incompetence and possess greater respect for the treacherous political waters that Eisenhower had to navigate as Supreme Allied Commander. For some balance, you can read Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, which devotes an entire chapter to the 101st Airborne’s role in Operation Market Garden. However, the real highlight of Ambrose’s book is the story about the unbelievable conditions and American acts of heroism at Bastogne in the Ardennes Forest during The Battle of the Bulge. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

8. The Double Helix by James D. Watson
You would immediately think a first-hand account about the search for the discovery of DNA would qualify as a snooze fest of scientific mumbo-gumbo. You could not be more wrong. Instead of producing a dry, academic book about the scientific process of trial, error, observation, and refutation, Watson writes an exciting detective novel and invites you along for the twists and turns of the wild ride. Who knew science could be so exciting? The Double Helix is a rare breed, a non-fiction book about science that is a page-turner. I dare you to put it down once you start reading. Purchase on Amazon here.

7. Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger
The definitive book about the Apollo space program is, paradoxically, about its greatest failure and triumph. As Commander of Apollo 13, Lovell takes you right onto the ship with him, and fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert, to give you the first-hand account of what they went through on that eventful voyage and how close they really were to dying. Lovell and Kluger also do their research and tell the equally fascinating story of the NASA people on the ground trying to save the astronauts. After reading this book, you will be even more amazed that Apollo 13 survived to make it home. If anything, the film version of this book does not adequately convey enough just how really miraculous was the flight of Apollo 13. I am not sure any film could do so, but Ron Howard’s film certainly gave it a great shot. Purchase on Amazon here.

6. The Death and Life of Great American Cities: The Failure of Modern Town Planning by Jane Jacobs
This is a bit of a specialist book since it is about the failure of town planning. However, Jacobs’ book is so important that everyone should read it. You actually do not have to be a planning expert (Jacobs wasn’t, she was an economist) to take away valuable information about our cities. I am not usually one for litmus tests. However, any architect, planner, engineer, geographer, or policy maker who questions or soft-pedals the validity of Jacobs’ arguments in this book should immediately be suspected of not knowing what the hell they are talking about. Purchase on Amazon here.

5. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
This is still the gold standard for presidential memoirs. Grant wisely avoids the problems and scandals of his presidency to focus on his early life, military training, and his role in the U.S. Civil War. You probably do not realize it but much of what you know about Grant, Lincoln, Sherman, and even Robert E. Lee comes from Grant’s crucial first-hand account of the bloodiest period in American history. Purchase on Amazon here.

4. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
The story of the American West as told from the perspective of the American Indian. It is a heart-wrenching read and some sections (especially about the brutality of the Sand Creek Massacre) will make you want to vomit and cry at the same time. This is a lot of material covered and the book itself is dense but easy to read. Oddly, this book is also a cautionary tale for anyone naïve enough to think the Federal government is incapable of tyranny. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee proves any government, even one founded on the purest of ideals, can descend into tyranny. You would think slavery and the U.S. Civil War would have already ably demonstrated this point but here is another example occurring mostly in the years after the Civil War. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Purchase on Amazon here.

3. All the President’s Men/The Final Days by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
The story of the Nixon Administration and Watergate will always be intimately tied to these two Woodward and Bernstein books. Like Watson’s The Double Helix, you would not think investigative journalism would be an especially interesting subject. However, such is the level of the stakes (the Presidency itself) and the story-telling capability of Woodward and Bernstein that the books (especially All the President’s Men) read like page-turning, spy thrillers. Unfortunately, in hindsight, Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting also marks the beginning of the long decline (‘jumped the shark’, perhaps?) of the Fourth Estate. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

2. The Civil War: A Narrative (Three Volumes) by Shelby Foote/Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson
These two works really offer the definitive historical accounts of the U.S. Civil War. Foote’s three-volume narrative essentially offers an objective Southern perspective about ‘The War of Northern Aggression’ whereas McPherson’s provides more of a Northern perspective. Foote’s three volumes are a dense and long account of the war, about 1,000 pages per volume and weighing nearly 10 pounds in total! However, it is a surprisingly easy read given how dense is the material. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom is a one-volume historical account of the war. It is also a fascinating and easy read, which is a viable alternative if you do not really want to delve into Foote’s more dense narrative. Purchase on Amazon here and here.

1. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
This book should be required reading for every human being in every country on the planet, period. Anne is just an ordinary girl growing into a vibrant, young woman during one of the most perverted moments in human history. She was a Jew in hiding in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of Holland. She could be your neighbor or even your daughter. By the end of this book, she becomes everyone’s daughter. The Nazis find and arrest her and her family a mere two weeks before the liberation of Amsterdam, sending them to a concentration camp where Anne dies. Note: The liberation of Holland was delayed for six weeks because of the failure of Operation Market Garden, see # 9 above. You do the math. Her father survives to come back to the house where they were hiding to find the diary Anne hid there and tell her story to the world. The anger you will feel is genuine because the world was robbed of her vibrant presence and, then, the full horror hits you. Anne’s story is just one story among millions of stories that were never told nor even written. It is impossible for me to think about Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl without crying. The only consolation is God truly had a plan for Anne, which was to produce one of the most poignant and important testimonies in human history. Purchase on Amazon here.

Read the list of “Top Ten ‘Must Read’ Fiction Books.”

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