I've just been reading Jean Bony's 'French Gothic architecture of the 12th and 13th centuries'.
That's a rather unimaginative title and some of the work is hard going. But if you've ever visited a couple of French cathedrals and found yourself, perhaps, instinctively liking one and not the other, or trying to work out why they feel so different, it's worth ploughing through Bony's book.
Bony knows all the architectural history, the structural engineering (how and why these buildings actually stand up) and the documentation. But what he has that really distinguishes this book is a feeling for the artistic quality of the architecture.
He believes that Gothic isn't about technical means. It's not about flying buttresses, vaults, or pointed arches - though these technological innovations have their place in helping Gothic architects achieve what they wanted. Instead, he sees the origins of the Gothic style in a desire for lightness, for volume, for height - and later on, for 'self explanation', architecture that evolves a logical relationship between its component parts to reflect the orderly universe of scholastic thought.
And what's marvellous is the way he looks at Laon (yes, I'm biased, it's probably my favourite French cathedral) not as the first step in a new architectural style, but as an artistic creation. He seems to relate directly to the anonymous builder, who achieved a marvellous play of forms, which interpenetrate, move around, telescope, create transparent and recessive planes. Yes, there's a lot of technical stuff. Even I got bored in places... but the book is a great preparation for really understanding the Gothic style.
And Bony managed to get access to quite a lot of place you can't normally go. Into the triforium galleries, up on the roof, even into the roof space so that he can show how the vaults are put together on the top side. The photographs are consistently excellent. He also introduces documentary evidence for a number of cathedrals you'll never get to see - because they have been destroyed in wars or revolutions.
The downside is the price, a stunning £48.95 from Amazon. (ISBN 0520055861). Track it down in a public library if possible; I did.