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Richard J. Evans
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The history of the "City of Light"

Paris: The Biography of a City - Colin Jones

Colin Jones's history of Paris is subtitled "The Biography of a City," yet the book he provides is virtually the opposite. For rather than providing an intimate portrait of the city through the ages, what he offers is an account of the city within the context of the nation's history. This is understandable given Paris's role in France's development, though as Jones demonstrates Paris wasn't always the center of authority in the country. It wasn't until the high Middle Ages that Paris was transformed from a modest river crossing into the capital of a kingdom, after which it grew spectacularly with the fortunes of the realm.


Though Jones is good at summarizing the city's early centuries, his chapters on Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries are the strongest. This is understandable, given that he specializes in the era, but his focus on this period (over half of the book's chapters are about the post-1715 era) has the effect of unbalancing his coverage somewhat. Still, his achievement is impressive, as he offers a impressively wide-raging account of the city's social and cultural evolution drawn form the existing French- and English-language literature on the metropolis. This is by far the best overall history of Paris available in English, one that is necessary reading for anyone interested in the "City of Light" and how it evolved into the place it is today.