Los Angeles is the subject of countless books, nonfiction and fiction. I have read a minuscule number of these books. From those few I am now selecting a small sample for your consideration. These are books I have found helpful in furthering my knowledge and appreciation of Los Angeles. Perhaps they will do the same for you. In the interest of brevity many significant works have been omitted, including works by Mike Davis and Kevin Starr. Nonetheless, perhaps there is something in this compilation that will pique your interest.
Most of these books are available from the Los Angeles Public library by anyone who has a library card. Applying for a library card is free and easy. The only qualification is California residency, temporary or permanent. Once you have your card, just go to the library’s website, make your selections, and have your selections delivered to your local branch library.
You can, of course, go to a brick and mortar bookstore and buy some of these books. I prefer purchasing online by going to either BookFinder.com or for recently published books, FetchBook.info, to see who carries a book I am interested in and at what price. I then order online.
One of my favorite pastimes is perusing LA’s waning but still existent used/antiquarian bookshops – a proper subject for a future blog. For now, for those interested who happen to be in the central district of Los Angeles, I suggest dropping by Caravan Book Store and The Last Bookstore.
Caravan Book Store is so traditional it doesn’t even have a website. It could serve as the set for a Victorian based movie. On the other hand, The Last Bookstore, located in an old bank, is not only one of the largest used bookstores in America it is a downtown social phenomena. Some of the books I have listed may well be available at one of these locations.
T. Coraghessan Boyle, The Tortilla Curtain
The story is set in the Topanga Canyon and Canoga Park areas of Los Angeles. How the lives of an illegal Mexican immigrant couple intertwine with an Anglo couple who live in a gated community has applicability that transcends the locale.
Raymond Chandler. The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely
Private eye Philip Marlowe is featured in both stories by the “Los Angeles laureate,” Raymond Chandler. Set in the 1930s, these stories about the corruption of the human spirit with Los Angeles as their backdrop show why Chandler’s name is synonymous with America’s school of hard-boiled crime fiction.
A number of current writers of crime fiction also use Los Angeles as a backdrop for their stories. Two such writers are Michael Connelly and his Harry Bosch series and Jonathan Kellerman and his series of books featuring Dr. Alex Delaware. Connelly’s L.A. backdrops tend to be more accurate while Kellerman tends to make the backdrop references fit his story’s needs.
Joan Didion. Play It As It Lays
An American classic, Joan Didion’s intense prose dissects an emotionally barren actress adrift in a Hollywood that is beyond good and evil.
John Fante. Ask the Dust
First published in 1939, the Los Angeles Times has described Fante as “One of the lost souls of American letters, an author whose work has an almost legendary stature among writers and critics but remains curiously unknown to the public at large.” Set in 1930s Los Angeles, semi-biographical, this is the story of a struggling, young writer that captures the region’s essentials from Long Beach to Santa Monica and from downtown to the San Fernando Valley and the Mojave Desert.
Walter Mosley. Little Scarlet
Walter Mosley is one of America’s most exceptional writers. You don’t have to be a fan of detective stories in order to enjoy and appreciate this book. Set in the immediate aftermath of the 1965 Watts Riots, within the context of a stimulating story Mosley provides a word picture of what led to the riots, the riots and the possible catharsis that followed. Mosley’s other Easy Rawlins’ books are also good literature that contains equally thoughtful descriptions of South Central Los Angeles with side-trips to other areas such as Santa Monica and Beverly Hills.
Hector Tobar. The Tattooed Soldier
The Tattooed Soldier is an outstanding novel that depicts Los Angeles neighborhoods rooted in the Third World. The story is set among the homeless and immigrant populations in the MacArthur Park area of Los Angeles. The scepter of Guatemalan Death Squads, their victims and the search for revenge and salvation are an integral part of Tobar’s story.
Nathaniel West. The Day of the Locust
Written in 1939, some consider The Day of the Locust to be the best book written about the early days of Hollywood. West was the first child of German-speaking Russian Jewish parents from Lithuania. During his life, the four novels he wrote sold poorly and he worked as a screenwriter to earn a living. The Day of the Locust was written, and reflects some of his observations, while living on Hollywood’s Yucca Street.
Richard Alleman. Hollywood: The Movie Lover’s Guide
The most complete tourist guide to Hollywood I have seen, Alleman points out significant and insignificant Hollywood related sites throughout the Los Angeles area including homes of past stars and locations where well known films have been shot.
Horace Bell. Reminiscences of a Ranger Early Times in Southern California
Originally published in 1877 Bell’s memoir is an entertaining, somewhat embellished description of Gold Rush Los Angeles at a time when the city was one of the wildest in the West. The full text is available online.
John Buntin. L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City
This book is, in effect, a dual biography. One biography is that of Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen; the other is that of the morally unflinching William Parker, Chief of Police. By describing how their lives intersected Buntin provides a picture of the Los Angeles police and city politics during the period.
Bette Yarbrough Cox. Central Avenue – Its Rise and Fall (1890-c. 1955) Including the Musical Renaissance of Black Los Angeles
New York and Harlem; Los Angeles and Central Avenue—each is significant not only to the history and culture of their city but to the entire United States. This book, which is partly narrative and partly oral history, recounts Central Avenue’s contribution.
William Deverell. Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past
Deverell examines how Los Angeles’s Mexican past has been appropriated, modified and sometimes obliterated through patterns of ethnic discrimination and dominance.
Frances Dinkelspiel. Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California
A work of scholarship that is nevertheless fun to read, Towers of Gold is the story of Isaias Hellman. He was founder of Los Angeles’s first successful bank, transformer of Wells Fargo into one of the West’s biggest financial institutions, an investor with Henry Huntington in trolley lines and a lender of funds to Edward Doheny leading to the discovery of the Los Angeles oil reserves. Beyond Los Angeles, Hellman calmed the San Francisco financial markets following the 1906 earthquake and served as a regent of the University of California.
William David Estrada. The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space
Using the Los Angeles Plaza as his focal point, Estrada explores the entire history of the city with academic precision and nonacademic style.
David Fine. Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction
David Fine traces the history of Los Angeles through the works of a diverse set of writers.
Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt. Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County
Out of date but still a useful reference tool for everything dealing with Los Angeles.
Gregory Paul William. The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History
This is the best, all-around presentation of the Hollywood region I have seen. Well researched, full of historic pictures, Williams presents a loving yet dispassionate description of the evolution of the sites within Hollywood, sites that are inseparable from the events and personalities associated with them.
Scott Zesch. The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871
A precursor to Los Angeles’s later race riots, the story of the 1871 implosion that resulted in the lynching and mutilation of eighteen Chinese immigrants is vividly presented in this Oxford University Press publication.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.