I’m a San Franciscan now, and part of how I’ve been growing into that is trying to read voraciously about my adopted city. Here’s my list of SF books, in rough order of how I’d recommend them to a new San Franciscan.
This is updated semi-regularly. For a more complete list, including my latest reads, see Goodreads.
|Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco||You would not want this to be the last book you read about San Francisco—you would get a shallow, scattered picture. But it probably makes a great first book about San Francisco – it isn’t just a history or cartography of the city but tries (and often succeeds) to convey why people love the city; why they are nostalgic about versions of the city-past; why you might want to spend a weekend or a lifetime wandering the alleys and hills and coastlines of the place.|
|The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself||If you read only one book about the earthquake, this is it. Heck, if you read only one book about pre-1960s San Francisco, this is probably it too – great introduction to the human story of the earthquake and how it was tied up in the economy, racial politics, etc. of San Francisco – not just pre-’06, but post-’06 as well. Three particular themes are worth noting here. First, there is much focus on how California thought about earthquakes – both in terms of not preparing pre-’06, and (new to me) how it labeled the event a “fire” to downplay earthquake risks post-’06. Second, and also related to the fire, it talks a lot about the human role in the fire, and how there is substantial evidence that people trying to solve the problem of the fire may have made things worse by blowing things up and causing more fire. Finally, it talks about the myth of looting – where it came from; how little evidence there is for it; and how people were actually substantially constructive towards each other after the fire. All of those are worth keeping in mind next time you see reports of alleged “mass looting” after another natural disaster. All in all a terrific work of history.|
Tangentially, this is much better, in my opinion, than the more commonly recommended A Crack in the Edge of the World, which is perhaps a more entertaining read, but much, much less informative.
|The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk||I expected this to be primarily about Harvey Milk, but it really doubles as a history of the city during the seventies, and touches on modern-seeming topics including gentrification, rent control, activism v. power, etc. Well worth a read even if you’re not particularly interested in gay rights or Milk himself (though you’ll find that part interesting as well).|
|Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas||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. Not for everyone, and not a good starting place to Learn Facts about the city. But nevertheless something I love and think is worth flipping through for anyone trying to find the stories that can bring a city to life.|
|Vanished waters: A history of San Francisco’s Mission Bay||Anyone who lives in SoMa/Mission Bay (i.e., many tech newcomers at some point) will benefit from reading this at some point. It will help you understand the geography and history of your own micro-neighborhood.|
|Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression||Once upon a time, in a country far, far away, you could still ban books of poetry because they were “obscene”. Not that long ago, and of course for San Franciscans, literally around the corner at City Lights bookstore. While this is on my San Francisco shelf, I’m not sure I’d call it an SF book per se – more a book about the trial and speech issues that happen to take place in SF. Still, a good read, particularly for anyone interested in poetry, the Beats, or civil liberties/speech issues; and giving a sideways peek into San Francisco’s Beat scene in the meantime.|
|Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo||A beautiful book with a lot of good essays on the fairly serious history of muralismo in the Mission/SF. Worth reading if you find yourself staring at murals a lot (as I do); worth at least flipping through if you want to see some beautiful things and inspire yourself to go down more alleys than you usually do.|
|Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture||This is a challenging read and definitely not for everybody, but it does give texture to the modern city that lots of other books don’t (and a particularly lefty/activist texture). The book is structured as a series of essays, and the topics (and quality) are all over the place. They includes bits on black and Chinese artists; murals and graffiti; oak trees in the Presidio; and SOMA’s old leather scene. Note that many of them are pretty focused – you’re not generally going to find “this is what was going on in the city from year X to year Y” here – instead, you’ll find little viewpoints into things you probably didn’t know existed. That can be frustrating, or it can be boring, or it can be incredibly interesting – probably depends as much on the reader as on the essay/topic. Definitely worth a read, but only for those who are pretty deadly serious about city history.|
|Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906||This started as a PhD thesis, and reads like one. But if you’re the kind of person who can plunge through that, 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; and also to “cultured” programmers imposing (intentionally or not) change on those who already live here – both live themes in SF.|
|Electric Kool Aid Acid Test / What the Dormouse Said / Regional Advantage||I think of these as a trilogy (or almost a triangle). Kool Aid is great (and an entertaining read) on SF history and culture in the 60s and 70s. Dormouse is really very anecdotal, but ties the history described in Kool Aid to the software industry and the tensions between “personal” computing and enterprise/military/government computing. Regional Advantage then goes to the other side, showing that it was increased interpersonal and intercorporate sharing that made Silicon Valley successful once “real” business motives took over from the first wave of innovation.|
|The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco||Nominally, this book is about the Black Death and San Francisco, but it is really about science, immigration, racism, and cities in the late 1800s. My 2014 review of this book calls it “fun” and “less important” but in light of COVID it feels very timely and important.|
|Port City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco 1848-2010||This is pretty much what it says on the cover: a fairly detailed (and wonderfully illustrated/photographed) history of the Port of San Francisco. This is written by a historian sponsored by the port, so take with a grain of salt. That said, based on the other histories of the city that I’ve read it is a pretty fair characterization of the history of the port. Definitely worth picking up if you’re fascinated (as I am) by the interplay of water and city, but not the first book I’d read on the topic – ultimately it is too fragmentary and needs other histories to help you tie this in to the overall history of the city.|
|Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love||Putting this here not to recommend it, but to anti-recommend it, because so many others like it. |
The book’s gives you a decent high-level sense of what was happening to the city in an important two-decade period, but the coverage is anecdotal and personality-driven. There is no data; no economics; no sociology except of the most two-bit, BS kind.
As an example, the book goes into some depth on the people behind two politically/racially-motivated killing sprees of the 70s. In passing, the book mentions that SF had mostly been spared the urban riots that had riven a lot of the rest of the country. Also in passing, while hearing stories about music and the Fillmore, you learn that the Western Addition, where most of the city’s African-American population lived, was basically destroyed by urban renewal.
If you want to read a novel of personalities, the book’s approach to these killing sprees is fine. If you actually want to learn about San Francisco, the priorities are all wrong. The people covered extensively in the book are pretty much all dead or in jail, while the neglected long-term dynamics (race, economics, etc.) are still very much with us.