Los Angeles is a hard city to truly love. Not because it’s “always thrusting you away like an unwanted orphan” as John Fante once put it, but because it’s difficult to understand. Sure there is a lot to like—the weather, the food, the space—but love requires something deeper. It requires a deep understanding.
LA is a city that continually obscures its own history and forgets what it has going for it. So it’s no wonder that “getting” it is so difficult. I lived in LA for 5 years and I just could not understand the city, especially in light of other cities I loved like New York or New Orleans. But only after I randomly read a bunch of books that gave me a glimmer of understanding—a hint into its past as a real place with history and people and life—was I really able to appreciate this unique and special place.
It’s a city that launched its own literary genre and some of the greatest American authors who ever lived. It’s a city with amazing architecture (though it loves to tear that down). It’s a city where the second oldest athletic club in the United States costs $100 a month to join. It’s a city that once had amazing public transportation—where you could ride from downtown to Long Beach on a streetcar (which, btw, is what the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is about). It was once the home of everyone from Upton Sinclair to Wyatt Earp and his family. I mean, seriously.
Los Angeles is a city that you’ll love more the more you know about it. These books will help. Plus…they’re amazing.
I found John Fante through Neil Strauss, who considers Ask the Dust one of his favorite books. I read it in one day, LOVED it and subsequently read everything by Fante I could get my hands on. It’s like people have been hiding this writer from us—and LA’s only attempt to recognize him is the silly little “square” they named after him Downtown. Fante’s Ask The Dust is the west coast’s Great Gatsby. Fante has benefited from some recognition—mostly thanks to Bukowski championing him in his later years—but because the book is about Los Angeles and not New York City, it is mostly forgotten. Better than Gatsby, it is a series. In one year alone, I read seven Fante novels, one biography by his son and a book of letters between John and H.L Mencken. Arturo Bandini, the subject of his most famous series, is a wonderful example of someone whose actual life is ruined by the fantasies in his head–every second he spends stuck up there is one he wastes and spoils in real life. Of historical note: Fante tells a side of Los Angeles that most people don’t know existed, a side that for some inexcusable reason has been completely forgotten. From Bunker Hill to Long Beach to Malibu—Fante’s works cover all of Los Angeles, usually in different eras. My favorite Fante books, in order, if you need more guidance are: Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, The Brotherhood of the Grape/a>, Full of Life, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, 1933 Was a Bad Year. Once you read those, you will almost certainly enjoy Fante/Mencken (HL Mencken was a mentor of John’s), and Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving.
If Raymond Chandler doesn’t make you love Los Angeles, no fiction writer can. I read every book Chandler published plus a biography in about a week and a half. I’m not sure what drew me to these books originally, but what kept me in them—literally one right after another without stopping—was how great they are. Chandler was a writer who the critics hated but the people loved, which is usually a pretty good indicator that he was onto something. Noir fiction appeals to me because it does what writing is supposed to: immerse the reader in a vivid, entertaining world. That it also happens to hold great insight about life, power, and people is extra. Chandler never forgot that. It’s why you should read him—you’ll be captivated and learn about the city, about people and about the time period. He too covers the full geography of Los Angeles county from the old gambling boats off Santa Monica to Pasadena to Riverside to Big Bear Lake. Chandler often changes the names but it doesn’t matter. You want to live in his Los Angeles, it just feels so much more interesting. Ranking his books in order of my favorites: The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, Playback, The Long Goodbye, Trouble is My Business, The High Window, The Little Sister, Farewell My Lovely, and The Simple Art of Murder. Also read and liked: Raymond Chandler Speaking, Chandlertown, and Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles (which has some excellent photos).
Southern California: An Island on The Land by Carey McWilliams
Carey McWilliams was a famous public intellectual who lived and loved Los Angeles. It is his words that are inscribed on the statue in Pershing Square:
Then it suddenly occurred to me that in all the world there neither was, nor would there ever be, another place like this city of angels…Here indeed was the place for me, a ringside seat at the circus.
But I prefer a different line from him. In his biography of Southern California he remarks that Los Angeles, which possesses some of the most unique and special geography in the world—from mountains to ocean to desert to valley all within a few minutes drive, should take our breath away. But at the same time we can’t help but feel that with all this potential, the city and culture somehow disappoint us. It’s true. This book explains how and why the city came to be. It also gives you a glimpse as the where some of those problems come from.
This is not a book but it’s one of the most unusual documentaries I have ever seen. It’s about Los Angeles…as it has been portrayed in the movies over the last one hundred years. As far as I know it will never be traditionally released due to rights issues but it’s usually available on YouTube. The film professor who made this is basically the greatest LA tour guide and historian who ever lived. If you don’t like reading, watch this moving. It’s like a cliff’s notes of all the books here and then some.
Los Angeles: Portrait of a City by David L. Ulin and Kevin Starr
Even though I haven’t lived in LA for 4 years (I live in Austin now), this is the book I have on my coffee table. Yes, it is expensive. I think it’s like $60, but damn it has some of the most beautiful photographs I have ever seen. From the first known photo taken in Los Angeles, to the tragic photos of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel and the Rodney King riots, this book encapsulates the entire history of LA in amazing photos.
A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory by Norman M. Klein and City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis
I am putting these two books together because they are somewhat academic but nevertheless spectacular. Both are historians who explain Los Angeles’ strange tendency to obscure its own past. A city of reinvention, it likes to deny that it was ever once something else, or god forbid, something better. As Mike Davis points out, Los Angeles once had a world famous stone arch which celebrated the entrance to the Selig Zoo. Every child in the city had seen and loved the animals which decorated the arch. When the zoo closed, everyone forgot about the arch and it was dismantled. A few decades later they found most of the animals in a junkyard in Fontana. Can you imagine this happening to the lions of the of the Central Park Library? Only LA could wipe out it’s own history this way.
The Price of Experience: Power, Money, Image and Murder in Los Angeles by Randall Sullivan
If you liked any of Bret Easton Ellis’ fictions of Los Angeles like Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms then you need to read this book. Because it is basically the real life version. Joe Hunt, a delusional genius creates a Ponzi scheme called the Billionaire Boys Club with a group of friends. Living the high life in Los Angeles they eat at the best restaurants and shop at the best stores. They lived in one of the high rises in the corridor between Beverly Hills and Westwood, which I believe still stands. Most incredibly, one of their marks is actually a con man who ends of conning them. As the wheels begin to come off, they descend into violence and murder. And this all happens during the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA. This book is just a fascinating look at the kind of culture that LA had during that era and the worst it brought out (and brings out) in some. This is a truly underrated book.
This is not related to the video game. It is an excellent book about Los Angeles, crime, the police force and it’s dark period of the 30s, 40s and 50s. I prefer some of the primary sources but this book is great, especially the parts about gangsters like Mickey Cohen. I saw the writer give a talk about it at the Los Angeles Athletic Club a few years back—itself a place that features into the book—and got a lot out of it.
4 Books About the Movie Business (because you can’t understand LA without understanding the biz)
The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood and The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Reality Behind the Movies by Edward Jay Epstein are the first books I was told to read before I moved to Hollywood. They explain the actual business model of the Hollywood studios (hint: it is NOT box office receipts) and this helps you understand why your actor and writer friends live and act the way they do. It’s why writers can have a house in the Hills without ever having made anything, for example. I also like Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Pete Guber Took Sony For a Ride In Hollywood because it explains just how incompetent and awful studio heads actually are. Finally, for a glimpse of some old school Hollywood glamour, check out The Kid Stays In The Picture: A Notorious Life by Robert Evans (it’s also a great documentary). Evans is nuts. I’m not sure how much there is to learn about the city itself but it is a fascinating story of some of the people who made the town in the last half of the 20th century—better than fiction. I think it shows you how far hustle and hype and heat contribute to success in LA. And that faith in yourself—deserved, delusional or not—goes a long way.
Los Angeles is an important city to understand. It’s just as old as San Francisco, but it seems like it went wrong somewhere along the way. It had its own version of the Lower East Side (Bunker Hill, which you’ve probably seen in LA Confidential). But where is it now? They tore it down. It wasn’t simply some diabolical plot to destroy a city (sorry, Chinatown) but mostly apathy and as we said earlier, a lack of understanding. The people who live there fundamentally do not understand their own heritage and thus they allowed it to be wrecked, often in the name of “improvement.”
When I left Los Angeles I needed to move out of there so badly. I was just so tired and sick of it. So much about LA is broken and not what it could be—how can a city that very intentionally embraced the car and had forsaken all other forms of transportation have such horrible roads? How could a city with so many sports teams, professional and college, basically not be into sports? How could a city known for it’s awesome weather basically be unbearable when its hot and shut down when it rains? And yet, understanding and reading about it—a lot of which happened after I left—made me love and miss it again.
So understand it now before it’s too late. You’ll thank these authors—not me—if you let them teach you.