Every year, my father gets me books for my birthday. It’s a mutually beneficial tradition—he gets to share in our love of reading while continuing to exert his influence over my life, even now that I’ve long moved out from under his roof. I, on the other hand, get a bunch of books.
Late last year, I moved from Half Moon Bay to San Francisco. So the theme of 2022’s collection was obvious: Books about my current city, which I would soon be diving straight into as a reporter for The Standard.
Now, I’ll admit I haven’t made it through the list in its entirety—in part due to the pressures of a monthly book-turned-trivia club that often dominates my free reading time. But those that I have paged through have fundamentally changed the way I see and understand the city and have deepened my appreciation for its history, challenges and beauty.
My track workouts at Kezar Stadium are that much more epic now that I know it used to be the home of the 49ers. And meandering down Haight Street takes on new meaning with Joan Didion’s prose in my head.
Don’t like history books? Don’t stress. There’s something for everyone on this list. So without further ado, head to your local bookstore or library and pick up a few titles—and get ready for the city of St. Francis to open its doors to you.
McTeague: A Story of San Francisco by Frank Norris
We’re going way back in time with this classic. Published in 1899 and set in San Francisco, the novel follows a local couple as they struggle to get by in the early days of the city. Romance and tragedy novel lovers, this one is for you.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
You’ll never explore the city center the same way after devouring this vibrant tale of resilience and self-discovery. Set in the summer of 1876 amid the smallpox epidemic, the scenes of San Francisco’s streets come alive in a romanticized retelling of a still-unsolved murder mystery.
The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts
It’s hard to explain to newcomers the legacy that Harvey Milk has left on the city, or to imagine a similar scene of devastation that was his assassination unfolding in City Hall today. This 1982 biography of the former supervisor and gay San Francisco leader is a must-read if you’re even a little into local politics.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Remember when TV used to come out episode by episode? Now imagine your favorite detective story leaving you with cliffhangers—but in print. That’s how The Maltese Falcon, a vintage crime novel set in 1929 San Francisco was first delivered to its readers, and today, the story’s twists, turns and quintessential San Francisco fog-filled alleyways endure.
Season of the Witch by David Talbot
This one is for you, young San Franciscans. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve heard all the names of famous San Franciscans from Bill Graham to Jim Jones, but never quite got the references of your older co-workers or your parents. Read this book, and I guarantee you’ll finally be able to hold your own in dinnertime musings about just how much the city has changed.
Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo
Young adult fiction lovers, rejoice. Here’s a story about a young daughter of Chinese immigrants who seeks refuge in San Francisco’s early lesbian bars as she explores her independence and her sexuality. Next time you’re in North Beach, grab a copy and see how the streets bustle with the shadows of the 1950s. Pretty soon, you too will be lusting after a cozy Telegraph Hill apartment.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Cozy up with a full plate of dim sum and this Chinatown classic and tune into the stories of four immigrant mothers and their American children—a multigenerational saga that’s even become required reading in some California schools.
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
It’s true. Neighborhood drama is a core part of living in San Francisco, where your business becomes everyone’s business. This 1970s comedy, first published as a newspaper serial in The San Francisco Chronicle, peeks into one “chosen family” who make the city feel like home.
Ferlinghetti, A Life by Neeli Cherkovski
Ever wondered how San Francisco became famous for its poets? This new expanded edition of the 1979 biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti was published just this year following the famed poet and City Lights Booksellers owner’s death at 101.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s death late last year demands a revisiting of her most potent descriptions of San Francisco hippy life from its epicenter in the Haight. This nonfiction essay collection is about as California as it gets.
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