San Francisco Recommended Reading

Update: I’ve moved the most up-to-date version of this to this page. Leaving the original explanation below!

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 ;)

12 thoughts on “San Francisco Recommended Reading”

  1. Glad the town is of interest… some other faves:

    0 “The Barbary Coast”, Herbert Asbury, 1933 or so. Still in print, and I’ve also seen the text online.

    o “Jazz on the Barbary Coast”, Tom Stoddard, 1970s… eye-opening.

    o There’s a series of old photos of individual neighborhoods, think it’s Chronicle Books, pretty easy to find around town these days (if you can find a bookstore, that is).

    Lots of fun browsing at,, and related orgs.

  2. I haven’t actually read any of these books, but I really enjoyed Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. Even though it’s set in a different time it really felt very familiar to me.

    1. Tales of the City has been on the to-read list for a while, just haven’t gotten around to it. Milk is another long-timer on the to-read list (at the very least, I watched the movie, which was great).

  3. John: I have one of those books for Mountain View, actually. ;) They’re fun. also is great in that way.

    The original Barbary Coast book has been knocked in a lot of places for playing fast and loose with the facts, but Jazz on the Barbary Coast looks interesting; I’ll add it to the list.

    Two suggestions from Twitter and Facebook: “Howl on Trial,” about the obscenity trial centered on Ginsberg’s Howl, which I’ve already requested from the SFPL; and Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which I’d read and loved but in my pre-SF days. It should be a trilogy with “Dormouse” and “Regional Advantage,” but only for those seriously interested in expanding their brains a bit ;)

  4. If you are okay with fiction for this list, I love an excuse to recommend Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op series. The aren’t all in SF (Red Harvest!!) but enough happens there that it’s worth being on this list. They’re all a great read, and the LOA version is lovely. It gives an interesting flavour and description of an earlier San Francisco. It definitely a different town than its current reputation presents, though you can definitely see modern echo’s in it.

    Also, I enjoyed Simon Winchester’s “A Crack in the Edge of the World.” I remember it being a little uneven and I liked his other books more, but I remember it having good stories in it. Might be worth a look.

  5. Missed your reply!

    For the Continental Op/SF stories read his short stories and the Dain Curse. The later stuff (Nick/Nora Charles) is charming and clever but based in NY. But for an intro to Dashiell Hammett it’s hard to top Red Harvest. It’s an amazing, rip-roaring, unbelievable story, and it’s never quite topped. It’s genre-defining, and pretty much the anti-Holmes. Takes place in Butte, MT, though.

    Either way, LOA has the complete collection in two lovely volumes. I recommend just getting those, if you’re interested.

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