The 40 Books Every Angeleno Must Read

A Los Angeles bibliography for the discerning reader

By The Editors

The 40 Books Every Angeleno Must Read
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27 January 2016

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 Angeleno Must Read, an unranked, genre-neutral, incomplete-but-when-is-anything-ever-really-complete celebration of the most enchanting and inspiring voices that have made literal our fair city’s history.

Why these forty? Aside from those who could not be absent — Chandler, Fante, Davis, Bukowski, Didion, Ellis, Ellroy — our choices are wholly democratic.

These are by no means the best books written in, about or in spite of Los Angeles.

We just love them. And have learned from them. And hence desired to write about them.

Before you dig in  a passage on the City of Angels from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49:

“She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narcisco, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken. She suspected that much.”

The books below? There’s no limit to what they could tell you. Enjoy.

01 Los Angeles Stories by Ry Cooder
Ry Cooder may be best known for producing The Buena Vista Social Club, but his recent novel is noir done right. It depicts the low-lifes and gutterpunks inhabiting the rougher edges of Venice, Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine.

02 Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard is one of the most adapted novelists in Hollywood, and his laconic style reads like a more humorous version of Hemingway.

03 The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
Regardless of whether Chandler liked Los Angeles, he captured it many times over with his ear for acid dialogue and brilliantly simple metaphors. His surly gumshoe, Philip Marlowe, is perhaps L.A.'s most memorable literary anti-hero. Fun fact: The Big Sleep has been cited by the Coen brothers as the inspiration for The Big Lebowski.

04 Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Mosley lead-man Easy Rawlins is black America's answer to Marlowe or Dashiel Hammet's Sam Spade. Devil in a Blue Dress kicks ass because it gives a seamless commentary on race relations in the late 1940s while spinning a clever tale of crime and deceit.

05 The Circus Parade by Jim Tully
Jim Tully made his living as a scamp, a carney, a boxer and a screenwriter in the budding days of the film industry. He inspired Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Raymond Chandler.

06 The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy
Just as compulsory as Chandler, James Ellroy’s crime novels set in the postwar Hollywood days are essential reads for anyone fascinated by Noir fiction. The Black Dahlia follows a manhunt for a deranged killer.

07 The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
Once a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Connelly lends readers some juicy insight into how the criminal justice system works ... or doesn’t. 

08 Double Indemnity by James Cain
One femme fatale. One insurance salesman. And one murder.

09 The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Perhaps the only Pynchon novel you couldn't use to knock out a burglar, Lot 49 has the reclusive writer at his most succinct, and doubles as one of the best critiques of urban sprawl you'll ever read.

10 Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
In Play It as It Lays, California native Didion describes the vacuousness of Hollywood and the ennui felt by its many acolytes with a wisdom that can only be born from experience.

11 Ask the Dusk by John Fante
Before there was Charles Bukowski, there was John Fante, a down-and-out writer who lived in DTLA and Manhattan Beach. Ask the Dusk is a voyeuristic glimpse into the angst-ridden writer’s inner struggles.

12 The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury might not have set his stories in L.A. per se, but he was a native Angeleno who never once owned a car. He also edited Playboy. You can’t go wrong with his titles, but The Illustrated Man is our pick. Subject matter: a million-year rain. Food for thought in a time of drought.

13 Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis
Gen X nihilism from its greatest practitioner, as seen through the eyes of wealthy Angelenos who dine on Spago and cocaine.

14 Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson
captures the city’s first myth, and is to Los Angeles what Gone With the Wind is to the South.

15 The Love of the Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A fictionalized account of Hollywood's first golden age, as told by studio mogul Monroe Stahr.

16 The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
Boyle nails contemporary L.A.'s greatest conflict — the clash of cultural and socio-economic classes — with a tale set primarily in Topanga Canyon.

17 Post Office by Charles Bukowski
No list of books set in L.A. would be complete without Bukowski, notable drunk and beat poet laureate of our fair city. Post Office is loosely based on the writer’s time working at a post office. It’s hilarious.

18 The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
If you think alienation and desolation are new themes in Tinseltown, read this. Nothing changes except technology, folks.

19 Golden Days by Carolyn See
Set during the Reagan years at the top of the Cold War, Golden Days is a humorous story that follows the lives of Angelenos on the brink of a Nuclear War.

20 The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski
Danielewski bursted onto the literary scene with narrative-hopping tome House of Leaves. This more recent novel — which comes in two volumes — has an ensemble cast, several of whom reside in Los Angeles.

21 Zeroville by Steve Erickson
follows an ex-communicated semmarian through Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Roosevelt in the midst of Charles Manson's reign of terror.

22 Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
Rodriguez won the Carl Sandburg Book Award for this memoir about his life as a Chicano gang member coming of age on the mean streets of East Los Angeles.

23 The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans
Evans lived one of the most epic lives in Hollywood history. This memoir was adapted to a documentary that he narrates. But the book is full of wild tales from the man who produced The Godfather, Rosemary's Baby and many more classics.

24 Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis
The Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman gives an honest account of his life and times living in L.A. and being at the forefront of one of the city’s most influential bands.

25 Freeway by Rick Ross and Cathy Scott
With the help of Cathy Scott, Ross — L.A.'s infamous cocaine baron throughout the '80s — tells his story with some keen insights and historical facts about how crack cocaine blew up. 

26 Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
Our partner Rob Lowe’s memoir about growing up in Malibu and ascending to the Brat Pack is, plugs aside, very enjoyable. It’s also proof positive that Gen X is a way more badass generation of movie star than the millennial crop.

27 Power Concedes Nothing by Connie Rice
Hyperbole aside, Connie Rice (not to be confused with Condi; her second cousin) is one of the most important figures in modern civil rights. That the bulk of her work fighting the good fight has been a boon to her local community as well as the country is icing on the cake.

28 Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
William Goldman has written (and even ghostwritten) some of the most important movies of the past 50 years. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All the President’s Men. The Princess Bride. His memoir is compulsory for anyone looking to make a living as a writer in L.A.

29 Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams
Carey McWilliams's history of Southern California was published in the '50s, and though some of it will seem dated, it’s still pretty darn good. A great starting point for anyone delving into the history of the region, and McWilliams nails SoCal character traits that would later prove timeless (see: cults).

30 City of Quartz by Mike Davis
City of Quartz
will make you want to move. It details with fierce language the more dystopian elements of Los Angeles, from its inept and often corrupt city planning to its avaricious real estate developers and racist policing. File under: Know Thyself.

31 Water to the Angels by Les Standiford
H20: a touchy subject. Standiford tackles it head on with an entertaining take on the history and politics of water through the telling tale of William Mulholland, the Irish immigrant responsible for the Aqueduct. 

32 The King of California by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman
In the 1920’s, J.G. Boswell was the biggest farmer in America. The guy drained a lake to feed one of his cotton fields. This biography is dark, legendary and includes cameos from the likes of filmmakers and Cesar Chavez.

33 The Crusades of Cesar Chavez by Miriam Pawel
After learning about J.G. Boswell, Cesar Chavez will be a palate cleanser. The field worker-turned-activist and labor organizer is one of the most influential leaders in Los Angeles history.

34 The Pump House Gang by Tom Wolfe
A collection of articles Wolfe wrote on surfing and automotive culture in the late '60s, when lollygagging teens left the beach to surf the cosmic inner waves brought on by LSD.

35 The World in the Curl by Peter Westwick and Peter Neushul
World in the Curl
is slightly academic — its authors, after all, are professors. But they’re also surfers, so they tackle the subject with equal measures enthusiasm and rigor, including everything from the sport's early history to current trends and technology.

36 Land of Smoke and Mirrors by Vincent Brook
There are plenty of books about the history of movies, but Vincent Brook’s is the only one that deep-dives into movies set in the city, deconstructing the myths and realities of Hollywood’s favorite backdrop while dropping serious film knowledge along the way.

 Difficult Men 
by Brett Martin
Martin's book tells the story of how TV came to eat the movies' lunch with one-on-one interviews with Davids Chase, Milch and Simon (pretty much anyone named David), as well as the HBO execs responsible for greenlighting the series that shaped the recent Golden Age. Along the way you get juicy anecdotes (like a drunk Milch pissing in the NBC fountain) and a full history of cable. 

38 Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe
Billy Wilder, whose work includes Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity and Sabrina, was among the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who fled the Nazis to settle in Los Angeles and take part in the film industry's revolution. The man lived an extraordinary life, and Cameron Crowe gets to the heart of it.

39 The History of Forgetting by Norman M. Klein
Most critics of Los Angeles love to say that our city has no history. Turns out, the city is just really good at accepting new cultural input and constantly tries to reinvent itself.

40 Counter Intelligence by Jonathan Gold
Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold’s book on L.A.’s best dives and neighborhood restaurants is as much a culinary history of L.A. as it is a guidebook. Gold’s writing is funny, detailed and always whets the appetite.

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