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By Nelson Alexander on 01-16-10
A Masterpiece Recovered
I am, perhaps unwisely, writing this review before finishing the book, but I felt eager to proclaim it a revelation. I've read Riis before, but found it quite spellbinding to listen to the work, which is one of the great portraits of the city. Riis gives the sort of memorable character to New York's buildings and streets that Dickens gave to the residents of London. By today's standards his work is an odd blend of journalism, lore, data mining, and Victorian anthropology. Neither sociology nor maudlin reformism. The stereotypes may offend the sensitive, but are equitably distributed. While any graduate student can easily critique, deconstruct, or even psychoanalyze him, Riis truly stands on his own. While he is not Engels, the facts and descriptions make a vivid account of the problems that gave rise to the American Progressive Movement, and I would grant them a certain status as literature or art, especially if you look at his entire body of work along with the innovation of the flash photographs. What is surprising is how well the audio version stands up here without the photographs. Indeed, the famous images have had the effect of burying the writing. The reader does a good job, but his rough American drawl has a character of its own and may not be to everyone's taste. I might have preferred some attempt to replicate Riis's own voice, which I have always imagined as clipped, ironic, and heavily Danish. Though I have not yet finished as of this review, I can see that the book might drag without an overarching theme or natural narrative. Still, I would highly recommend it as a vital work of American journalism, history, and literature. And it a surprisingly colorful, interesting listen minus its celebrated photos. Actually, if might be nice to add the photos for an accompanying iPod slideshow.
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