Book Review: Genius of Common Sense

Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. By Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch. Publisher: David R. Godine, Boston 2009.

When it comes to status-affirming events, there is one that may even surpass a Nobel or a Pulitzer: having a children's book written about you.

This is what has happened, albeit posthumously, to Jane Jacobs, the influential and visionary writer on cities who died a few years ago after a long career. This small, feisty woman had been a legend in city planning circles for decades. Now, with the publication of Genius of Common Sense, she may be a hit with the younger set as well.

In twelve short chapters comprising a bit more than 100 pages, Authors Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch, both from Boston, lay out the essence of Jacob's life and the contribution she made to how people view cities and the way people think about them. They recount how she grew up in Scranton; how she moved to the big city of New York to make it as a writer; her marriage to an architect named Jacobs; her gradual immersion in cities and planning; her ground breaking publication of Death and Life of Great American Cities; and her fights against the establishment to stop highway projects. The book is illustrated with charming hand-drawn illustrations by the authors, as well as with historic photos.

Children's books, or actually in this case a book for "young adults," are a valuable medium. If done well, they reduce an event or process down to a simple, clear and correct essence. At Columbia Journalism School where I attended, my professor Donald "Pete" Johnston, a former Times editor, told the story of seeking out a children's book on electricity when he was trying to explain how the great 1978 New York City blackout had occurred for a special supplement.

Lang and Wunsch's book seem both simple and valuable. It reminds me of my friend Joy Hakim's books for children on American history, called A History of Us, which has revolutionized the teaching of history to kids but can be greatly elucidating to adults as well, even if one thinks they know a lot on a subject.

I have read a lot of Jacob's books, and a lot of books and articles about Jacobs. But I never knew that she had poetry published; that in 1941 at the age of 25 she had a book published on the constitutional convention in the 1787; that she worked for the Office of War Information during World War II. The authors did original research using Jacob's papers now stored at Boston College and I suspect many of the tasty tidbits about Jacob's life came from there.

My only criticism of the book is its title. Give that it is aimed for children, the authors or publishers should have come up with a snappier title than "Genius of Common Sense" and the long subtitle. Neither conveys the charm or quickness of the book. Something with a bit of humor would have been appropriate.