Jonathan Raban

Last December, I came across Jonathan Raban’s soft city in Oxfam. I impulse-bought it, because it played to my fascination with big cities, and with their impact on the imaginations of their inhabitants and visitors.

As I wrote elsewhere, I was torn between admiration for Raban’s erudition and prose style, and irritation at his disdain for non-academics trying to think by themselves. Mostly, I liked it just because there still aren’t enough people writing about cities in the same rose-tinted way they write about nature.

Now I find that Raban is a bit more interesting than the parochial academic I’d pegged him as after Soft City. He’s moved on from London, lived in Seattle for a decade, and written Passage to Juneau, a book about sailing in the Pacific Northwest. From the reviews, it seems he’s trying to do for the sea the same as Soft City did for cities – the book is even subtitled A sea and its meanings. I find that strangely inspiring. I normally avoid books about the sea or the countryside for fear of sentimentality: since I grew up in the country, I’d rather save my sentimentality for the city. But Raban I might make an exception for – if he can write poetically about London, then perhaps he can also write non-romantically about Alaska. It’s easy to be inspired by a book about something you love anyway. I’m wondering whether I’ll manage to be equally inspired by a book about something as alien to me as the sea. So Passage to Juneau goes on the reading list.