Book review: Only in Boston

The book Only in Boston is written by Duncan J.D. Smith and is the twelfth in his ‘Only In’ series of guidebooks. It is the first focusing on a North American city; the previous publications have all been guidebooks to European cities.

Disclosure: Stuart Forster, the author of this post, was sent a review copy of ‘Only in Boston’. Neither the book’s author nor its publisher reviewed or approved this article.

The strapline to the ‘Only In’ books is ‘A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Usual Objects’. That, in my view, what sets the series apart from other guidebooks. They feature quirky elements and bite-sized bits of history that bring urban hubs to life and make me want to wander in the locations that Smith writes about.

Disclosure: Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts

I’m currently toying with the idea of returning to Boston, the state capital of Massachusetts, and have already visited several of the key places of interest in the city’s downtown. (Check out my feature published by Weather To Travel if you’re interested in my tips on things to do and see in the city, published in my First Timer’s guide to Boston). Only in Boston proved a good book to browse for ideas about off-the-beaten-track things to do in Boston and neighbouring Cambridge.

What I particularly enjoyed about Only in Boston is that it’s informative and engaging. Smith goes beyond the obvious in his book, providing some great nuggets of information about the city’s heritage and attractions.

“It is staggering to think that almost three quarters of central Boston is built on land reclaimed from water,” he writes in chapter eight, which tells of how the Shawmut, a peninsula known as Boston Neck, jutted into the bay when settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony arrived, in 1630. A map shows how landfill has markedly changed the shape of the waterfront over the course of the past four centuries. Governors Island and Castle Island have been annexed to land either side of where the merged water of the Charles and Mystic Rivers flows through Boston Harbor. As a modern-day visitor it is nigh on impossible to guess that.

Cover of 'Only in Boston' written by Duncan J.D. Smith. The guidebook to Boston, Massachusetts, is the first book in the Only In series of guides to be about a city in the United States of America.
Cover of ‘Only in Boston’ written by Duncan J.D. Smith. The guidebook to Boston, Massachusetts, is the first book in the ‘Only In’ series of guides to be about a city in the United States of America.

Bite-sized chapters about Boston

The 232-page guidebook consists of 106 chapters. Most of those chapters run to just a couple of pages in length, meaning it’s easy to pick up and put down Only in Boston. It’s one of those books that’s good to carry around and delve into during quiet moments.

The chapters are grouped geographically, with information about downtown locations towards the front of the book and those relating to Back Bay and Cambridge towards the back.

The front cover folds out to reveal a map of the city while the inside of the back cover unfolds to show a plan of the Subway system operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (£):

A marathon in 106 sprints

The city that hosts the world’s oldest annual marathon — which Smith tells us drew just 18 participants when it was first run, back in 1897 — was once site of a highly unusual and tragic flood. If I ever run a marathon, something that I by no means aspire to do, I’m sure it would feel as if I was running through treacle for much of it.

Unfortunately, 21 people died and 150 were injured during the Great Boston Molasses Flood. “A syrupy wave of molasses 25 feet high rushed out onto Commercial Street at an estimated 35 mph,” writes Smith about the disaster, in chapter 10.

Only in Boston has chapters drawing attention to Charles Bulfinch (America’s first professional architect), the USA’s oldest continually operating restaurant (the Union Oyster House) and the country’s oldest surviving church (Old North Church in North End). I enjoyed how Smith introduces them, weaving anecdotes into the chapters about them.

Ultimately, this isn’t just a guidebook that is likely to appeal to visitors to Boston. It’s the kind of book that holds snippets of information that may be of interest to the city’s residents.

Only in Boston by Duncan J.D. Smith

Duncan J.D. Smith’s books are available for purchase via the Only in Guides website. The recommended retail price is £16.95 ($22.95, CAD $29.50 or €19.90)

Only in Boston is also available via Amazon (£):


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