The 40 Books Every San Franciscan Must Read
A S.F. bibliography for the discerning reader
Reading, n.: The act of reading; perusal; recitation.
Anyone still doing that?
A question that needs not an answer, but rather a firm push in the write direction:
The 40 Books Every San Franciscan Must Read, an unranked, genre-neutral, incomplete-but-when-is-anything-ever-really-complete celebration of the most enchanting voices that have made literal our fair city’s history.
Why these forty? Aside from those who could not be absent — Jacks Kerouac or London, John Muir and Justin Chin — our choices are wholly democratic.
These are by no means the best books written in, about or in spite of San Francisco. We just love them. And have learned from them. And hence desired to write about them.
Before you dig in — a few words on life from Jack London, who traveled the world after coming into it on the corner of 3rd and Brannan. There’s something in them.
“Work. Spell it in capital letters. WORK. WORK all the time. Find out about this earth, this universe; this force and matter, and the spirit that glimmers up through force and matter from the maggot to Godhead. And by all this I mean WORK for a philosophy of life. It does not hurt how wrong your philosophy of life may be, so long as you have one and have it well.”
All that and more in the books below.
01 Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Lives are just more interesting at 28 Barbary Lane. The classic gay, lesbian, bi, straight, marijuana-growing trans landlady novel series that teaches us all to live a little more openly.
02 The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
The hard-boiled detective story that gave us Sam Spade, the complex hard-boiled gumshoe with a set of morals and opinions all his own. Also, an equally pleasing noir flick.
03 Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
Literally waxing lyrical poetics — Onegian stanzas to be exact — on Bay Area yuppies in the 1980s. Narrative verse at its finest.
04 Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit’s beautifully rendered atlas reimagines San Francisco as infinitely malleable, the created product of its inhabitants and their passions, from butterflies habitats to Zen Buddhist centers.
05 Valencia by Michelle Tea
Tea’s riotous semi-autobiographical book about the sexual exploits of Mission District lesbians. If there’s one book that captures Gen-X S.F. queerdom in all of its addled madness — this is it.
06 San Francisco Stories by Jack London
London wrote about San Francisco between stints in the Klondike, South Pacific and the Russo-Japanese War; this collection is the classic study of the pre-earthquake, and includes a first-hand account of the devastating events of 1906.
07 The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Standard state curriculum. Tan’s most accessible work. Who’s up for a game of mahjong?
08 The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac, who reportedly saw God above Market Street, remains better identified with his New York City birthplace — and in fact, this Beat-era S.F. is a simulacrum for Manhattan, the real-life setting for the romance depicted in this novella.
09 Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Vinyl, blaxploitation, Kung Fu and at least one Barack Obama cameo. Yep, pretty weird. Then again, it’s what you’d expect from a novel by Chabon set in the Wild West that is the Oakland/Berkeley border.
10 The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The shortest of Pynchon’s novels, this post-modern conspiracy tale nevertheless finds time to meander from Northern California all the way south, taking pause in San Francisco to encounter a series of off-kilter personalities charged by the atmosphere of the Bay in the 1960s.
11 Gutted by Justin Chin
We’ll take from Chin: “But I know, I know my death / will not kill me. / Rather it is the death of others / that will kill me.” The Malaysia-born poet who passed away last year was a doyen of the city’s literary scene for decades.
12 Monkey Girl by Beth Lisick
Poet, performer, and memoirist Beth Lisick may now live in Brooklyn, but her roots are in “Brokeley,” and her upbringing was brilliantly shared in her New York Times bestselling Everybody into the Pool. We prefer, though, this early collection of her raw, vibrant, and laugh-out-loud-funny stories.
13 The Circle by Dave Eggers
A prescient take on Silicon Valley, a not-so-distant dystopia.
14 Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Marlantes is from the Pacific Northwest, but it was the tiny, non-profit Berkeley publisher El Leon Literary Arts that picked up this towering exploration of the Vietnam War when bigger names (and publishing houses) passed. A brutal, powerful, philosophical book that ended up as Time Magazine’s 10 best books of the year.
15 And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
One of the important books of the ‘80s chronicling the early days of the AIDS epidemic from one of the country’s first openly gay journalists. A politically-challenging, bureaucracy-bashing book with an agenda.
16 My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir
The paterfamilias of our National Park System. “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” Read it for free here.
17 Zodiac by Robert Graysmith
The longtime Chronicle cartoonist turns his obsession with the Zodiac Killer into something of a page-turning whodunit work of fiction.
18 Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton
Just how much is a hundred and forty characters worth? Here lies the origin story of Twitter, a tale of backstabbing loners penned by the New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton.
19 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Part of Dick’s alternate reality take on an America defeated by Japan and Germany takes place in San Francisco — a key city in the newly formed Pacific States of America.
20 Already Dead by Denis Johnson
Rarely has a novel so perfectly matched the psychology of a place: This is Mendocino County and the Lost Coast, in all its beguiling, bewildering charm.
21 For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide by Ntozake Shange
The first performance of Shange’s stirring, now-canonical choreopoem took place at a Berkeley-area women’s bar in 1974. Forty years later, it’s a key perspective on the Bay Area’s cultural and artistic diversity.
22 Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
A nuanced portrait of Jobs from the mercurial entrepreneur’s authorized biographer. The book that Sorkin’s biopic is based on. Also recommended: Isaacson’s biographies on Ben Franklin and Albert Einstein.
23 Oh the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey
Newcomers to San Francisco would do well to study Wilsey’s memoir, as it provides an unlikely window on the city’s unruly social set: His mother appeared as a character in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City — only, years later, to ask her Wilsey to kill himself alongside her after divorce.
24 Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Praised as some of the best prose of its time, this collection of essays offers a personal take on the counter-culture heyday of 1960s San Francisco that stands in opposition to the utopia often portrayed.
25 Howl by Allen Ginsberg
The hymn of the Beats — “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” — was written in Berkeley, performed first in San Francisco, and judged not obscene by California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn.
26 The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain
America’s greatest observer made his career on the story of a particularly adept frog from Calaveras County, southeast of Sacramento.
27 Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Monterey has changed considerably since the days of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, when it was home to marine biologists in need of a party and prostitutes happy to help out.
28 California by Ansel Adams
Adams was born in the Western Addition and founded the photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1945 — in the midst of becoming the state’s de facto photographer laureate, memorializing Northern California from Point Reyes and the Golden Gate to Mount Lassen and Lake Tahoe.
29 NorCalMod by Pierluigi Serraino
Though L.A. gets all the credit for the state’s mid-century modern architecture, NorCalMod proves we have plenty of our own classics, including residences from Harwell Hamilton Harris and Donald Olsen.
30 Barry McGee by Aaron Rose
The work of the city’s favorite street artist (and SFAI grad) gets the review it deserves, along with a mini-study of his fellow Beautiful Losers.
31 Menus for Chez Panisse by Patricia Curtan
Patricia Curtan’s letterpressed menus for Chez Panisse are miniature works of art; they double as inspiration for a year’s worth of eating. If you’re wondering what Alice Waters serves for Chinese New Year, your answers are here.
32 Heath Ceramics by Amos Klausner
A workable solution: Instead of buying every classic piece made by Heath Ceramics, instead purchase this beautifully made study of the Bay Area’s preeminent design brand.
33 Graphics Films by Mike Mills
Name the Bay Area’s best filmmaker and the Berkeley-raised Mills might not come to mind, though he’s certainly a prime candidate. This book offers a comprehensive, multidiscipline took on Mills’ work, covering graphic design, music videos, photography, and more.
34 The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands
From the carpenter who found a few flakes of gold in 1848, to the lawless rush for riches that ensued. All set in the “backwaters” of California in the age of the Manifest Destiny.
35 Imperial San Francisco by Gray Brechin
Even a city so focused on the future has a past, and this study of ours is harrowing: It’s a study of ambition, greed and the privileging of personal gain over public good … so yeah, it has something to say about 2016, too.
36 Revolutionary Letters by Diane Di Prima
The Beat Generation’s best-known voices belong to guys. Diane Di Prima was one of the few female voices to hold up against those of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
37 We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
Made of improbable magic, this grown-up’s book from Lemony Snicket asks what would happen if your 14-year-old daughter set off to become a pirate, sailing beneath the Golden Gate.
38 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
A low-key handbook for living by the Bay Area’s best-known spiritualist and author; it’s a gentle, Marin County antidote to Silicon Valley’s sometimes all-too-Hobbesian worldview.
39 The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
A thorough, compelling dive into the modern American diet by one of the country’s foremost food writers, The Omnivore’s Dilemma hovers around the author’s homebase in the Bay but the stories branch from coast to coast.
40 Tartine by Elizabeth Prueitt
If you don’t want to wait in line, this cookbook, from pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt and master baker Chad Robertson, is the next-best-thing to a Tartine pastry.
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