When I moved into San Francisco, I asked some folks about books I should read to get a sense of the history of the city. Here’s a sampling of the books that I’ve read since then, gathered in one place for the next time someone asks me the question. I’m still open to more suggestions, and suggestions need not be about the city as a whole- for example, my favorite book about New York was in large part about traffic and my favorite book about Boston was about the river.
Actually publishing this post, moons after writing it, is mostly in honor of today’s spectacular weather and my first ever bike ride across the Golden Gate. (And yes, the photo is cliched and I don’t care ;)
Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin: Gray Brechin: This book opens with a slightly bizarre conspiracy theory about the role of mining in history, and keeps going with a lot of implied “the rich are trying to keep us down” without much evidence. Not that the folks he’s chronicling are particularly nice folks, but that’s easy enough to prove without going off the deep end about it. Despite this unfortunate tendency, this book has lots of great stories and background about how the San Francisco power brokers of the late 19th century interrelated with the city, the state, and the rest of the country, including some great background on the history of water and mining in the region. Recommended reading for someone trying to get a grasp on the early history of SF, albeit to be taken with a side order of salt.
Infinite City, A San Francisco Atlas, Rebeca Solnit: This is an atlas in the same way One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story about a village. Which is to say it covers so much history, in so many crazy ways, and is so unlike any other story or map you’ve ever seen, that it becomes very hard to summarize. Maybe not for everyone, either, but something I love and think is worth flipping through for anyone trying to find the stories that can bring a city to life.
Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, Kevin Starr: Starr is a great historian (his more serious California history books are terrific), and this book has a lot of great stories. Unfortunately, it also has a lot of filler to make it “book length.” (In the future, books like this will be about 1/2 the length and sold purely as ebooks.) I recommend it, if you’re interested in the bridge and have time to wade through some fairly purple and extraneous prose. If you’re just looking for any one particular book about the city, this one isn’t it.
Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906, Barbara Berglund: This started as a PhD thesis, and reads like one. But if you’re the kind of person who can plunge through that (and I am), it’s a brilliant book, explaining how the racially mixed and roughly egalitarian culture of mining-era SF was gradually molded into something acceptable to “cultured” Americans – both to the nouveau riche of the West who wanted to build a city acceptable to the East, and to those from the East who were flooding into SF. Really fascinating read, and I think has some lessons applicable to the “uncultured” programmers who have to constantly resist cultural change imposed by more “refined” outsiders- still an ongoing theme in SF.
The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco by Marilyn Chase: This book explores the history of the entry of the bubonic plague into the Americas via San Francisco. It’s a lighter and more thematically consistent book than Making San Francisco American, but covers overlapping time periods and explores some similar themes, like early anti-Chinese racism, and the relationship of early San Francisco with the Eastern US. If you’re looking for something less serious, and not at all about software, this is definitely the one book in this list to read.
Vanished Waters: A History of San Francisco’s Mission Bay, Nancy Olmsted: I live on land reclaimed from Mission Bay, so this has resonance for me that it probably won’t for others. But I think it’s a brilliant, brief book that anyone who lives near modern Caltrain should benefit from reading, since it will help you understand the geography and history of your own neighborhood.
What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, by John Markoff; and Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128, AnnaLee Saxenian: I think of these as a pair, because while very different books they are also both about the culture of computing innovation and networking in the Valley. Dormouse is really very anecdotal (a little birdie once told me that even the author admits it was basically an excuse to string together a bunch of great stories he’d heard over the years), but they are great anecdotes and give a lot to chew over, especially in light of the success of the iPhone and iPad after the writing of the book, and the continued tension between personalized and centralized computing. Regional Advantage is an even older book, but critical to understanding the larger, structural causes of Silicon Valley’s success, showing that it was increased interpersonal and intercorporate sharing that made Silicon Valley continue to succeed after the shocks of the ’80s hammered both Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128.
Reclaiming San Francisco: Brook, Carlsson, and Peters: Not actually read yet, but am excited to find time for it. It’s a series of essays.