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Katherine Shonfield

The 'Legible Cities' conference in Bristol raised the interesting notion of reading within a city.

As tourists on short breaks we seem to enjoy the cities that have a linguistic cue ready to be immediately grasped: New York's numbered grids, Venice's water-for-streets. Perhaps the very idea of a guide book is predicated on the fact that cities are not readily legible and need deciphering before they can be consumed. The successful Ellipsis guides ready-prepare cities through one key: be it its contemporary architecture, or its trendy restaurants or bars.

These guides largely deal, as it were, with recommended texts, but there is also the reading material that is more top-shelf at a newsagents. A perceived 'problem'with British cities such as Bristol and London may be that they do not make such literary distinctions clear to the reader/visitor at the outset.

That is what makes Ellipsis' latest guide book, London walking: a handbook for survival , all the more intriguing. You pick it up expecting a set of preferred routes, and to find the means to translate the city so that, like a language, 'you will have a command of it'. Instead, it is reminiscent of the opposite method: immersion. Rather than excluding diversions, London walking revels in them:

giving you sketches for DIY stiles, and an entire chapter on how to cross the road. Like every other London book that has touched the essence of the city, what is to be read is for its own sake, is tangential, and does not lead anywhere in particular. Where walks have a goal they lay another reading upon the city, for example, the walk from east to west, from sunrise to sunset.

Like the recommended way to learn English, London walking uses the immersion method to make the city legible.

City legibility is a laudable principle - and the complexities of our language are as good a model for reading as any imported one.

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