Maybe I should grow hair to put flowers in...
February 6, 2007 2:44 PM   Subscribe

So I get to go to San Francisco/Berkeley for a week over spring break (rather unexpectedly). If it lives up to even a fraction of the hype (it seems to good to be true!) I hope to move out there after college. I've seen the multitude of threads on what to do there, so I'm here to ask what books relating to San Francisco should I read over the next few months to enhance my enjoyment of the trip?

It can be pretty much anything...

I'd like to read at least one history of the city. Perhaps a tourist guide, if there is anything worthwhile. Perhaps fiction that would be illuminate some aspect of SF culture.

I'm considering graduate school in Berkeley in a few years, so that's fair game as well.

What will make me go... "oh wow, I've read about this!"
posted by phrontist to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Read Imperial San Francisco and you'll know more history than most locals.
posted by alexei at 2:54 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, dated and utter popcorn of a read, but also Awesome!
posted by dirtylittlemonkey at 3:04 PM on February 6, 2007

Anything by Herb Caen.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:07 PM on February 6, 2007

Seconding Imperial San Francisco. Great for understanding how San Francisco became the City.

(Wow. I thought I was the only person who had read that book!)

For a look at her more recent history, I recommend City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco by Chester Hartman.
posted by trip and a half at 3:09 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

A few topics to read about, some of them have good books and some do not.

- Emperor Norton, including the book Norton I, Emperor of the United States (cited in that article)
- Richard Brautigan - including The Abortion
- Feral Parrots in SFO
- Howl & Other Poems and also I Am Waiting by Ferlinghetti and other good stuff put out by City Lights
posted by jessamyn at 3:23 PM on February 6, 2007

It's a great place, but my advice is to ignore the hype and figure the place out for yourself without those expectations. My overly idealistic image of the Bay area made my transition here far more difficult... there were aspects of the Bay area that ended up being nothing like I'd imagined. Every city has great and bad points, no place is ever perfect. That whole "too good to be true" thing can be a killer... because when you romanticize something, it may work against you in the real world. I very definitely romanticized SF. I'm making a good life here, though.

All of that said, it might be a great fit for you so you should try it out! Following your dreams is always a good plan, I say!

When I first moved here, people told me to read Tales of the City. I prefer old Dashiell Hammett though.
posted by miss lynnster at 3:25 PM on February 6, 2007

Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
posted by Packy_1962 at 3:57 PM on February 6, 2007

I'd also recommend a book on the 1906 earthquake such as The Earth Shock, the Sky Burned or one of many others. The 1906 quake still looms large here.

To add to Jessamyn's list of topics for exploration:

- Mission Dolores and/or Serra
- A book on San Francisco's Chinatown

I too had great visions of San Francisco before I moved here in 1992. And to be honest, it exceeded expectations. I immediately feel into a bunch of fantastic communities. Of course it was a slightly sleepier town back then and the dot-com boom was a distant rumble off on the horizon.
posted by vacapinta at 3:58 PM on February 6, 2007

Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson is a great companion book to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I would also recommend Cadillac Desert (not specifically about the Bay Area, but essential California History). If you read A Crack in the Edge of the World (Simon Winchester), you'll know more about earthquakes than most natives. Carter Beats the Devil is an agreeable little novel with quite a bit of local history tossed in. Roughing It is Mark Twain's autobiographical novel about coming out West, eventually to become a newspaper reporter in SF.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:34 PM on February 6, 2007

3rding Tales of the City. I don't recall the page count, but it's a really light, quick read.

I ran off to SF for several months when I was 19 and I was left with some of the most distinct memories of my life. Have fun.
posted by desjardins at 4:40 PM on February 6, 2007

Valencia, or The Ohlone Way.
posted by serazin at 4:42 PM on February 6, 2007

A Guide to Mysterious San Francisco: Dr. Weirde's Weirde Tours

Berkeley, a City in History (City of Berkeley library website)

Berkeley in the '60's (movie, not book.)

Peter Beagle's The Folk of the Air is a fantasy novel set in an obviously fictionalized Berkeley, and I can't think right now of any fiction that's gotten the feel of Berkeley better.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 6:30 PM on February 6, 2007

Yes yes yes to Brautigan. And of course Didion's The White Album.
posted by jtajta at 9:16 PM on February 6, 2007

Read the Maltese Falcon by Hammett and take a walking tour. Don't miss out on the plaque above the Stockton Street tunnel that marks the spot where Miles Archer was done in.
posted by jasper411 at 10:02 PM on February 6, 2007

On Tales of the City -- I would highly recommend renting the DVD of a film made about ten years ago based on these books. It is excellent, funny as hell, and will give you a great intro to the quirky mindset that is SF. Starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, among other supurb actors. Lots of allusions to Hitchcock, too.
posted by shifafa at 1:15 PM on February 7, 2007

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