In the beginning, the Wall was made of barbed wire and soldiers. On some streets, cinder blocks had been stacked. In the Neukölln borough, on Harzer Straße, the Wall was about neck-high. East and West Berliners could look at each other over the Wall but they were not allowed to touch. In a photograph taken on the first day, August 13, 1961, two mothers stand on either side of a coil of wire that reaches to their knees. The babies they hold stretch out to each other, inches of air between their fingers. There seems to be a magnetic repulsion preventing them from holding hands. In another picture from that day, a young man in a crowd stands across from two border guards; a chest-high stack of cement is separating them. The young man appears to be asking one guard a question — both lay their hands on the Wall…. More…

What makes up the history of a city? Is it the linear timeline — the who invaded when; the who led which group into victory or destruction; the list of intellectuals, emperors, madmen, musicians, scientists, orators who came through and left their mark? Maybe it’s the physical landscape, the rivers that create trade and wealth, the mountains that provide security and shelter. And what does that history add up to — if you learn enough about a city’s history, will you finally understand what makes the city what it is, will you capture its essence on the page?

Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash. 424 pages. Princeton University Press. $29.95. Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin by Alexandra Richie. 1,168 pages. Basic Books. George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I by Miranda Carter. 528 pages. Knopf…. More…