Books about Vancouver

Though it’s often overlooked as one of the great West Coast cities, Vancouver, BC synthesizes many of the most appealing qualities of its American counterparts. The Canadian outpost combines San Francisco’s walkability, Portland’s livability, Seattle’s seaside surroundings, and Los Angeles’ slickness, all in a carefully designed urban setting. The city’s current state is the result of development that has taken place over the past several decades. Yet Vancouver’s skyscrapers, gleaming condominium towers and urban center can make it difficult for the uninitiated visitor to see everything else that the city has to offer: These four books look deeper to reveal a much more distinctively textured Northwest metropolis

Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City edited by Paul Delany

While parts of Simon Fraser University professor Paul Delaney’s academic reader on Vancouver have become less relevant over time, other parts have become more valuable by highlighting the artistic, architectural, and commercial elements of the city that have best weathered the building bubbles and waves of immigration. Delany also considers how the city has been represented in architecture and the arts, and explores Vancouver as the setting for the novels of notable resident William Gibson. Though one might assume that a sci-fi novelist would appreciate Delaney’s futuristic approach to the city, Delany told me that after he handed Gibson a copy of Representing the Postmodern City for an autograph, the writer returned it with an unambiguous inscription: “No mo’ po-mo!”

City of Glass by Douglas Coupland

Alongside William Gibson, Coupland ranks as Vancouver’s best-known man of letters. He has not only set several of his novels in the city, but has also written one of the very first films both shot and set in Vancouver, 2006’s Everything’s Gone Green. In one of City of Glass’ very brief chapters, Coupland reflects on Vancouver’s new self-image thanks to its ascending role in film: “The fact that Vancouver increasingly gets to be itself in film and TV has given the city a new confidence, and we no longer feel so conflicted about the borderline-cheesy movies-of-the-week in which we disguise the city as Seattle, Portland, Chicago.” Coupland’s mostly non-fiction book includes fifty-five micro-essays on topics that range from riding the SkyTrain to digging through the dumpsters of Chinatown to feeling a tenuous connection to Seattle. Readers who have wondered about Coupland’s signature tone—understated but also given to sudden moment of rapture—will find, as they explore Vancouver, that his tone matches the personality of the city itself.

Stanley Park by Timothy Taylor

Asked to explain “CanLit,” Coupland once wrote, “CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience.” Timothy Taylor, often regarded as one of modern CanLit’s leading lights, has redefined the genre with his unapologetically cosmopolitan urban novels. But while Taylor departs from the main tenet of CanLit, he also makes creative use of the genre: Stanley Park’s young chef protagonist discovers his true calling in France, and his only contact with his eccentric anthropologist father comes in the thousand-acre Vancouver forest of the title. Published in 2001, the book anticipates with impressive prescience Vancouver’s “foodie” culture, from its conscious eaters to its organic-produce fans to its locavores.

Vancouver Special by Charles Demers

Vancouver’s relatively unblemished streets, smooth transit system, “bourgeois bohemians,” and ever-rising (in both quantity and price) housing stock might suggest that the city lacks down-and-out sections, but stroll along Hastings Street and you’ll see the city’s diversity. In Vancouver Special, writer and comedian Demers examines the underclass subcultures that exist in Vancouver, from the First Nations people who ride the buses, to the members of the Chinese immigrant community. Lush black-and-white photos accompany Demers’s observations as he searches for a new way to interpret the city. Demers asks a host of provocative questions: “Are we going to be a resort town for the super-rich from all around the world, or a functional, integrated city?” “Will we treat the immiseration of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens as an opportunity for creative social policy or creative real estate speculation?” In such a young metropolis, these questions remain unanswered.

Colin Marshall, host and producer of the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture, is currently at work on A Los Angeles Primer.