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Ten Books Every San Franciscan Should Read
Thursday, June 30, 2022

Ten Books Every San Franciscan Should Read

Every year, my father gets me books for my birthday. It’s a mutually beneficial tradition—he gets to share in our love of reading while continuing to exert his influence over my life, even now that I’ve long moved out from under his roof. I, on the other hand, get a bunch of books. 

Late last year, I moved from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco. So the theme of 2022’s collection was obvious: Books about my current city, which I would soon be diving straight into as a reporter for The Standard. 

Now, I’ll admit I haven’t made it through the list in its entirety—in part due to the pressures of a monthly book-turned-trivia club that often dominates my free reading time. But those that I have paged through have fundamentally changed the way I see and understand the city and have deepened my appreciation for its history, challenges and beauty. 

My track workouts at Kezar Stadium are that much more epic now that I know it used to be the home of the 49ers. And meandering down Haight Street takes on new meaning with Joan Didion’s prose in my head. 

Don’t like history books? Don’t stress. There’s something for everyone on this list. So without further ado, head to your local bookstore or library and pick up a few titles—and get ready for the city of St. Francis to open its doors to you. 

McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris

We’re going way back in time with this classic. Published in 1899 and set in San Francisco, the novel follows a local couple as they struggle to get by in the early days of the city. Romance and tragedy novel lovers, this one is for you. 

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

You’ll never explore the city center the same way after devouring this vibrant tale of resilience and self-discovery. Set in the summer of 1876 amid the smallpox epidemic, the scenes of San Francisco’s streets come alive in a romanticized retelling of a still-unsolved murder mystery. 

The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts

It’s hard to explain to newcomers the legacy that Harvey Milk has left on the city, or to imagine a similar scene of devastation that was his assassination unfolding in City Hall today. This 1982 biography of the former supervisor and gay San Francisco leader is a must-read if you’re even a little into local politics. 

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

Remember when TV used to come out episode by episode? Now imagine your favorite detective story leaving you with cliffhangers—but in print. That’s how The Maltese Falcon, a vintage crime novel set in 1929 San Francisco was first delivered to its readers, and today, the story’s twists, turns and quintessential San Francisco fog-filled alleyways endure. 

Season of the Witch by David Talbot

This one is for you, young San Franciscans. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve heard all the names of famous San Franciscans from Bill Graham to Jim Jones, but never quite got the references of your older co-workers or your parents. Read this book, and I guarantee you’ll finally be able to hold your own in dinnertime musings about just how much the city has changed. 

See Also

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo

Young adult fiction lovers, rejoice. Here’s a story about a young daughter of Chinese immigrants who seeks refuge in San Francisco’s early lesbian bars as she explores her independence and her sexuality. Next time you’re in North Beach, grab a copy and see how the streets bustle with the shadows of the 1950s. Pretty soon, you too will be lusting after a cozy Telegraph Hill apartment. 

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Cozy up with a full plate of dim sum and this Chinatown classic and tune into the stories of four immigrant mothers and their American children—a multigenerational saga that’s even become required reading in some California schools.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

It’s true. Neighborhood drama is a core part of living in San Francisco, where your business becomes everyone’s business. This 1970s comedy, first published as a newspaper serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, peeks into one “chosen family” who make the city feel like home.

Ferlinghetti, A Life by Neeli Cherkovski

Ever wondered how San Francisco became famous for its poets? This new expanded edition of the 1979 biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti was published just this year following the famed poet and City Lights Booksellers owner’s death at 101.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s death late last year demands a revisiting of her most potent descriptions of San Francisco hippy life from its epicenter in the Haight. This nonfiction essay collection is about as California as it gets.

Sarah Wright can be reached at [email protected].
  • If you have access to the Internet Archive (which I highly recommend) you may try “Bohemian San Francisco: Its Restaurants and their Most Famous Recipes-–The Elegant Art of Dining,” by Clarence E. Edwords, published in 1914. This is quite the romantic paean, a wonderful journey in time to post-earthquake San Francisco. If you want to try your hand at authentic turn of the last century’s San Francisco cooking, the recipes are here (heavy on the shellfish and cream), along with some colorful descriptions of the neighborhoods, grand hotels, restaurants, chefs and purveyors.

    https://archive.org/details/bohemiansanfranc00edwo/page/n7/mode/2up?view=theater

  • I’d recommend Gary Kamiya’s ‘Cool Gray City of Love,” a wonderful, kaleidoscopic walk (he walks!) through San Francisco’s famous and many unsung neighborhoods.

  • Try my book–INCENSED–about San Francisco life in the 70s. Just out on Amazon. “In 1970s San Francisco, a long-haired, versifying student annoys his friend as they head to Family Day at the Lawrence Weapons Lab.
    Off to the H-bomb L-A-B,/Where they keep the U-S free.
    Free from hippies, free from scum/ Free from dopers, lots of fun
    He bumbles into a bombing and hides out with a little help from his friends in an incense factory, a vets’ hangout at City College, a commune up north, and a Tenderloin hotel, all while being tracked down by the FBI, Trotskyites, Maoists, and some new age lefties.

  • May I suggest my new story collection, SAN FRANCISCO, published on June 1 and available everywhere? Terence Clarke

  • Earth Abides by George R Stewart (he was a professor at UC Berkeley) is about a post apocalyptic Bay Area settlement . I re read it during the early days of Covid lockdown because the disaster in the book was a pandemic.

  • You really need to add “Home Grown” by Alia Volz. Trust me. It’s as much a snapshot of San Francisco in the 70s and 80s as it is a memoir of growing up as the daughter of the famous Brownie Lady. (Yes, those kind of brownies.) Volz is a talented writer with a great voice.

  • “Earth Abides” is a wonderful, thought provoking read. What could we maintain of our present life with no expert help? How would we turn from scavenging to creating? I reread it every few years to stay grounded…..and entertained.

  • I found “Sourdough: or Lois, and her adventures in the underground market” by Robin Sloan a delight to read. Although this book is a work of fiction, those of us familiar with San Francisco will recognize the landmarks and the references to the ways of living. I would definitely add this to the list.

  • I recommend Vera by San Francisco writer Carol Edgarian. It is a recent publication, and beautifully rendered narrative of the SF Earthquake of 1906 as told through the eyes of adolescent Vera , loaded with fascinating , complex , and quirky characters —most importantly it is historically researched, appealing to a range of readers.

  • Where is “Trout Fishing in America” ? Read it and you will gain a new appreciation for Washington Square Park.

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