shelf improvement

This Is the Most Calming Book I’ve Ever Read

In the Cut’s recurring books column, Shelf Improvement, we delve deep into our bookshelves to find recommendations that never go out of style.

If I’ve learned anything from being online anywhere between 10 to 12 hours a day, it’s that it’s a surefire way to swiftly rot your brain and drain you emotionally. Moving off the grid is out of the question (I work in media, I love TV too much), so I try to mitigate my stress in realistic ways, like keeping social-media apps off my phone, avoiding screens before bed, exercising often, and regularly screaming into the abyss. But I’ve also discovered one weird trick to help me eliminate crushing ennui: reading this architecture and urban design book from the ’70s.

A Pattern Language, written by Christopher Alexander and five co-authors, was first published in 1977 and has since become a best seller. At the time, it was considered radical: a book that gave everyday people a tool to take control of their built environments. It’s comprised of various “patterns,” short guides describing how to solve design problems and create everything from a town to an individual home, all of which are connected to each other:

This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.

I first discovered A Pattern Language back in college when, in case you couldn’t tell from the passage above, I was way more idealistic. It’s a thick tome — its 1,000+ ultrathin pages make it feel vaguely Biblical — and I still have yet to read it straight all the way through. Instead, I flip to various patterns when I need to unplug and calm my mind. It’s like meditation, but I don’t spend the entire time having an imaginary argument in my head.

The specificity and thoughtfulness of the patterns make them satisfying to read. They cover everything from the most obvious, practical-seeming components of our built environment — “Web of Public Transportation,” “Small Public Squares,” “Road Crossing” — to those about small pleasures — “Sunny Place,” “Garden Seat” — to spaces for play and celebration — “Dancing in the Street,” “Adventure Playground,” “Carnival.” All fundamentally focus on improving people’s well-being. One particularly touching pattern, “Old People Everywhere,” explains how to integrate the elderly in daily communal life rather than continuing the bleak practice of isolating them among others in their age group. Another suggests buildings should be topped off at four stories and proclaims, “There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.”

Now, do I have any intention of actually building a house, much less a town, myself? No. I live in New York City and I’m terrible at even the most small-scale of crafts. (Also, I absolutely cannot afford it.) But when everything feels increasingly ephemeral, it’s fortifying to focus so thoroughly and considerately on creating something tangible and meaningful. And, who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get around to that Adventure Playground.

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This Is the Most Calming Book I’ve Ever Read