Librarian of Alexandria

I recently finished reading A Burglar's Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh, of BLDGBLOG fame. In general, I liked it: it was a fun and interesting read on a topic that I love, because I am a huge fan of heists and criminal masterminds and whatnot. The thematic center of the book is the idea that the way burglars use architecture can reveal interesting things about architecture and its use, and it explores a lot of related topics.

I think the book suffered in one way, and the way that it suffered is kind of interesting to me: until about halfway through the book, I felt kind of lukewarm about it, and I had some time to think about it before I picked the book up again. My knee-jerk impression was that it was meandering, but on reflection, that didn't make sense, because I like it when books meander. It was meandering in a way that I didn't care for, which is not a common phenomenon.

Manaugh is a talented writer. Maybe one who could benefit from a modicum of restraint—-he will occasionally indulge in some florid phrasing in ways that distract from the topic instead of serving it—-but that's rare enough, and in general he's good at conveying the detached, speculative, otherworldly sense of place that's pervasive in the kinds of things he writes about. I love his writing on BLDGBLOG, where he drifts back and forth between quotation-heavy journalistic prose and adjective-heavy narrative prose, setting up situations and then exploring them in interesting ways.

This prose is still present in the Burglar's Guide, but that was, in its own way, part of the problem. When I came to the book, I came to it as an argument: it had a central thesis, which is explicitly brought up and contrasted with competing theses at times, and a structure, chapter headings with topics and progressions. Except that none of those really exist: the thesis is used more thematically than concretely, the chapter headings and topics are only loosely correlated with their actual contents—-with the exception of the chapter on burglary tools, most chapters consist of chunks that could have been rearranged and renamed with little to no effect on the book—-and the thesis disappears regularly and reappears whenever a new detail needs to get pinned back to the central thread.

After I had thought about these things, I continued the book but consciously tried to read it ignoring chapter breaks, headings, and ignoring the macro-scale structure, and it became a much better book. I started trying to trying to read it not as a book developing a theme, but as a collection of blog posts under a slightly idiosyncratic and oddly specific topic, a bunch of posts all tagged as Architecture, True Crime. In that frame, it was much more successful.

I think that the Burglar's Guide really should have been presented in this way from the beginning: the chapter structure should have been reworked and tossed, and the sections should have either been headed with their topic or thrown in as chunks in a larger soup of a book, probably with an introduction and conclusion that talk about the larger themes. The macro-scale structure of the book as it exists is largely a fiction, and trying to read the book as adhering to that structure produces a (to me) slightly annoying mismatch when compared to the text itself. A book that didn't make any pretense of having structure would have been, I think, more successful.

That said, the book is otherwise very entertaining, and I would in general recommend it. I wanted to explore this idea as a good but purely textual example of a work being at odds with its medium, even when 'medium' here is defined narrowly: this is a good book that, interestingly, would have shined even more had it been a somewhat different kind of book.