San Francisco isn’t like other cities. It’s only 7-by-7 miles, making it America’s tiny urban treasure. Stocked with breathtaking vistas, sultry fog, and a boom-and-bust history, it has always been a haven for the wayward souls, dreamers, artists, entrepreneurs, runaways, queers. Whether you’re new in town looking for an introduction to these hilly landmarks, or an old-timer wanting to read up on the town you call home, here’s an introduction to some great, iconic books about or taking place in San Francisco.
1. McTeague by Frank Norris
Published in 1899, this is a novel about McTeague, a dentist who runs a shop on Polk Street. He falls in love with a girl while giving her a routine dental exam, and it’s essentially a tale of two men whose friendship is destroyed over a woman. A timeless trope for sure.
Recommended for: People who still want to read books that were published in 1899.
2. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Detective Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon has come to define the hard-boiled PI genre. Despite the fact that this book was published in 1930, the elusive atmosphere of San Francisco that skirts across the pages is the same one you’ll find today. A great page-turner studded with historic SF landmarks that mostly remain.
Recommended for: Anyone who likes a hard-boiled detective story. Noir folks.
3. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Tales of the City is the first novel in a series that first ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. That was back when newspapers did cool things like run serialized fiction, on a REGULAR BASIS. The tales revolve around Mary Ann Singleton, a prude out of Cleveland, and the rest of the residents of one address, 28 Barbary Lane. It’s the story of how the people and culture of San Francisco can change your life forever.
Recommended for: People who moved to San Francisco to escape their boring upbringings and to meet interesting people.
4. Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
Gore Vidal, who hated everything, called Golden Gate “the great California novel.” This is a story told in sonnets about the loves and lives of several Bay Area yuppies. A slice of SF life as it transitioned into the consumer-heavy ’80s, this book is an apt reread for the times we’re experiencing now.
Recommended for: Those who think they hate the idea of a novel in verse. Those who like to read out loud to their lover.
5. Infinite City by Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is one of San Francisco’s greatest treasures. Both a master researcher and impeccable prose stylist, she’s a public intellectual committed to preserving the spirit of San Francisco in trying times. In Infinite City, she gives us a collaborative atlas of a city, combining maps with essays to tell a community story of a historied and ever-changing place. Instead of having the atlas define San Francisco, it’s a window into a mutable story, and as Solnit says, “My map of San Francisco is also potentially yours.”
Recommended for: History buffs. Slant thinkers. Kaleidoscopic readers.
6. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers is kind of a literary king of San Francisco. From his books to his founding of McSweeney’s and 826 Valencia, you should familiarize yourself with his work if you live in SF. But why not start at the beginning, with the book that launched him into every household? HWOSG, as it’s abbreviated, is a nontraditional memoir about how Eggers was faced with the reality of helping to raise his brother in the wake of both of his parents dying of cancer within months of each other. It’s an unconventional, surprising, moving tale of moving to San Francisco in the wake of grief.
Recommended for: Anyone who is both at turns cynical and earnest beyond measure.
7. Landscape: Memory by Matthew Stadler
Landscape: Memory is a period novel set in World War 1-era San Francisco, about two young lifelong male friends exploring their relationship as it becomes romantic against the backdrop of a city trying to rebuild itself after the earthquake. With beautiful settings ranging from San Francisco to Bolinas, this is a book about memory and the hope for rebuilding both one’s sense of self and place.
Recommended for: Readers interested in a gay love story set against the backdrop of a post-quake San Francisco. Those drawn to a less-rigid, more lyrical historical novel than we’re used to.
8. Virgin Soul by Judy Juanita
Set against the rollicking backdrop of San Francisco in the ’60s, Virgin Soul tells the story of a young woman becoming involved with the Black Panthers as she sets out to discover herself amid one of the most politically charged times in American history.
Recommended for: Those who want to fight the power, while understanding that education might be the most important weapon.
The Royal Family is the doorstopper novel about prostitution in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Unabashedly, Vollmann uses his journalistic tendencies and personal obsession with prostitution to inform this exposed, detailed account of the heaven and hell of the streets. It’s his ability to both show the pain of pleasure and the pleasure of pain that makes The Royal Family nearly impossible to put down, despite the fact that it strains your wrist to hold it up.
Recommended for: People drawn to the edge of experience, the seedy, the underbelly, the Tenderloin. Not for prudes.
10. Valencia by Michelle Tea
Michelle Tea is San Francisco’s reigning literary queer queen. Aside from her prolific body of work, she does a ton for the community through her nonprofit Radar Productions. Valencia is Tea’s novel about living and loving as a lesbian in San Francisco’s Mission District. The narrator hops from job to job, bar to bar, bed to bed, all in a novel that flies by as fast as actual youth does. It’s also a novel about an artist facing the horrible prospect of working for a living. As the narrator says, “No, I was not going to work. I was an artist, a lover, a lover of women, of the oppressed and downtrodden, a warrior really. I should have been somewhere leading an armed revolution in the name of love and no, I was not going to work.”
Recommended for: Baby dykes new in town. Lezzies still looking for love in the Mission. Old queers who want to reminisce about the glory days when Valencia Street wasn’t roaming with tech bros.
11. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The so-called Bible of the Beat Generation, On the Road is the tale of Kerouac and his friends hitting the road across America, high on poetry and drugs, looking to find themselves a place in the world. It’s hailed as a classic, because young people will always want to find a way to be both free and a part of something.
Recommended for: Anyone who has ever wanted to get the fuck out of town. Particularly good for dudes between the ages of 17 and 25, who want to be seen reading on Muni.
12. San Francisco Stories by Jack London
Most of us know San Francisco as a soft foggy charmfest of a city. But it wasn’t always so tame. Jack London’s San Francisco Stories chronicles the tougher annals of SF’s pre-earthquake days, and includes Jack London’s firsthand account of the city burning in the wake of the 1906 quake. Either a must-read or must-avoid for anyone waiting for the next shaker. In this collection, you can find the San Francisco that is no longer, but still haunts the back allies.
Recommended for: True lovers of San Francisco. Neighborhood dive bar drinkers.
13. The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 by Richard Brautigan
Set in a magical library that is always open, The Abortion is a cult classic, and revolves around a librarian who accepts only books that are “the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” The librarian falls in love with a woman named Vida, who becomes pregnant, and the two seek an abortion in Tijuana. A truly beautiful book about the love that can only happen between the people who love books. Timelessly ’60s, endlessly dreamy, Brautigan’s writing is curious, quirky, and uniquely poetic.
Recommended for: People who need their souls thawed. Luddites who hate technology. People who have their feet on the ground but their head in the sky.
14. Cool Gray City of Love by Gary Kamiya
Writers have long had a relationship with walking as a way of exploring place. Salon co-founder and longtime Bay Area resident, Gary Kamiya gives us a walking tour of San Francisco’s iconic landmarks and secret gems. It’s a beautiful blend of personal reflection, reportage, and research, told through prose that makes you want to shut down your laptop and cinch up your shoelaces. San Francisco is one of the best walking cities, and Kamiya’s book is proof.
Recommended for: Flâneurs only. This is some serious softy walking wondering-type stuff here.
15. The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott
A novel about Francesca, a young lesbian who is a recovering alcoholic that is in love with her college professor — we’ve all been there — who she follows all the way to San Francisco, eventually landing a job as a waitress at IHOP. Liebegott is reliably hilarious when she’s writing about the awkward sad heartbreak that is growing up.
Recommended for: Waitresses who have bigger dreams than becoming the assistant manager. Young people about to have their hearts broken.
16. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Set in a tiny San Francisco bookstore, Mr. Penumbra’s is a romp of a tale about data, love, conspiracy, and code. It’s a book about the future of books, trying to find a bridge between luddites who love to smell the pages and those who are certain print is dead. A whimsical page-turner, smart and contemporary.
Recommended for: Techies who still love to daydream. People who walk into bookstores and think they are magic portals.
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