Portlandness is a different kind of book. Its maps are experimental by design, and the feel of its writing ranges from textbook chapter to pop-culture article to newspaper column. It covers the history of Portland’s geography, social justice issues, urban planning, and types of businesses. Whole spreads are dedicated to gentrification, DIY shops, modern Chinatown, local weather, homelessness in Portland, vegan-friendly eateries, and punk houses. There are also maps showing things like how people felt walking around the city, third-graders’ interpretations of Portland, and the prevalence of surveillance cameras. Animals such as honeybees, nutria, coyotes, and chickens got maps as well, as did sidewalks, coffee, and stop sign graffiti. This isn’t your typical atlas, or history book, or anything, really.
The look and feel of Portlandness is that of a coffee-table book. It seems like the maps should easily lend themselves to this use, but many of them are actually very frustrating to try to read without also reading the accompanying (sometimes-lengthy) text. That’s the core of this book’s biggest problem: reading meaning into experimental maps isn’t actually a breezy, nonchalant activity. They’re not just fun pictures; most of them require some level of background information and narration to make them meaningful, and while these things are provided, it often feels like this would be an excellent textbook for a class on Portland’s history but doesn’t entirely work for a casual reader. A lot of the historical information is very interesting, and the book is certainly well researched. It’s also very visually stimulating. Still, the experience isn’t quite as rewarding as it seems like it should be; while Portlandness is quite educational and pretty, the degree of attention and strain one must employ in order to properly absorb its content is at times beyond what might be enjoyable for the average reader.
If you’re already very interested in Portland’s history, social issues, and culture, you won’t be disappointed by the text and you might be entertained by many of the maps. If you’re looking for light, easy reading with a smattering of entertaining pictures, however, know in advance that the cover and fun concept somewhat belies the amount of effort you’ll have to put in for a satisfying reading (and interpreting) experience.
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