The Power Broker, but about Los Angeles?
March 30, 2018 10:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for good books about the history of California (or the West coast more generally, or Los Angeles in particular). They don't need to be tours d'horizon. They can focus on a specific time/place/person/theme. To give a rough idea of other "local history" I've enjoyed, this question is inspired by Robert Caro's The Power Broker, but I also enjoyed Gotham and London: The Biography. I've read Kevin Starr's one-volume California, and would certainly be interested in thoughts on his other books.
posted by caek to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Cadillac Desert is a must-read in this vein. John McPhee's Assembling California is less political, but does have a fair bit of content re John Muir/etc.
posted by j.edwards at 10:19 AM on March 30, 2018 [7 favorites]

The King Of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of A Secret American Empire

I did not understand California- the landscape, the history, the wild west corruption and how it came to be, before reading this book. I loved it and recommend it all the time.
posted by jbenben at 10:20 AM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Best answer: For my money, "the Power Broker but about LA" is Mike Davis' City of Quartz.

But for a great (geological) history of California, Assembling California by John McPhee.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:20 AM on March 30, 2018 [10 favorites]

Also, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:24 AM on March 30, 2018

The Architecture of Four Ecologies is a fascinating and insightful snapshot of LA in 1971.
posted by Jellybean_Slybun at 10:44 AM on March 30, 2018

Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) has a lot of insightful first-person reporting on California pre-statehood. There's this hilarious section about how shallow Southern Californians are because all they care about is their houses and horses. Never change, LA.

John Muir is great reading too, although his narratives skip the cities. But he is pretty much overcome by the vapors with each brook and tree he encounters in the California wilderness. Plus he can be savage when he gets worked up: "Now some millmen want to cut all the Calaveras trees into lumber and money. But we have found a better use for them. No doubt these trees would make good lumber after passing through a sawmill, as George Washington after passing through the hands of a French cook would have made good food. But both for Washington and the tree that bears his name higher uses have been found."
posted by roger ackroyd at 11:01 AM on March 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

The other Jessamyn West wrote a few books about early California (she grew up in Indiana and moved to CA in 1908. I liked her book To See the Dream which was about living in (at the time) rural Napa and coming down to Hollywood to work on the script for Friendly Persuasion. It's s very slice of life about Hollywood from someone totally outside the culture. Her fiction about California is also pretty good.
posted by jessamyn at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s not LA, but Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld is a fascinating read by the author of The Gangs of New York.
posted by montbrarian at 10:07 AM on March 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

Carey McWilliams' Southern California: An Island on the Land. Published in 1945 by a progressive writer & attorney who went on to edit The Nation from 1955-1975.
posted by ljshapiro at 1:19 PM on March 31, 2018

Seconding "City of Quartz."
posted by old_growler at 4:58 PM on March 31, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I think I'll start with City of Quartz, but several of the other suggestions sound great (and crop up as recommendations for what to read next on the City of Quartz Amazon page).
posted by caek at 3:13 PM on April 1, 2018

Response by poster: Coming back to update this with a link to a Twitter thread where the new Deputy Managing Editor of the LA Times, who is moving to LA, asks for book recommendations, and basically the entire LA times editorial team chimes in.
posted by caek at 10:04 AM on August 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

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