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Books about San Francisco: readers' picks


From yuppies to Harvey Milk via Jack London, here is your essential reading list for San Francisco travels – real or imaginary. These are some of our readers’ favourite books about the west coast cradle of bohemia, tech and groundbreaking literature

Some things can only happen in San Francisco. Few cities combine the magnetism of “start-up” entrepreneurship with being the perfect place for outsiders and seekers – and the literature set in the city reflects the creativity, convulsions and freedom that have shaped it. Whether you’re looking for a reading list to prepare, or accompany, a visit to San Francisco, or you’re simply in the mood to be driven to it through literature, look no further. Last week, San Francisco writer Anisse Gross took us through the fascinating literary history of the city where people emigrated to pursue not the American dream, but the dream of the west, “the limits of self‐expression and identity”. Do check her blog, with essential recommendations ranging from the Beats to Tales of the City – and here is what Guardian readers had to add. If your favourite is missing, please let us know in the comments.

John notes the late September showers

Have tinged the blond hills round the bay

I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy. I considered the movement the candidate.

Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.

Okay fella, I’ve gone all day and haven’t thought of you once … then it just comes over me like a chill … remember the little things, like your voice so tough but pudding underneath and the way the tip of your tongue sticks out when you concentrate on things like tying a shoe or jacking a shot …

I seen that wanting to love, struggling for it, is more real than just loving. It’s deeper, stronger, more honest. The other’s too easy and cheap. For cheap, easy people … Our kind has to suffer.

Mostly focused on Berkeley and Oakland, the East Bay gets less attention. Jack London and Gertrude Stein are natives, as well as Credence Clearwater Revival (although they’re actually from El Cerrito – a suburb of Berkeley). Stein referred to Oakland: “There is no there there.” People have been ignoring it ever since. It’s now attracting newcomers, as hipsters are priced out of San Francisco by Googlebus millionaires– a west coast Brooklyn perhaps.

Most of all, he was tired of being a holdout, a sole survivor, the last coconut hanging on the last palm tree on the last little atoll in the path of the great wave of late-modern capitalism, waiting to be hammered flat.

All the anger that Gwen had been feeling, not just today or over the past nine months but all her life – feeding on to it like a sun, using it to power her engines, to fund her stake in the American dream – struck her for the first time as a liability. As purely tragic. There was no way to partake of it without handing it on down the generations.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.

This strength John Barleycorn gives is not fictitious strength. It is real strength … But it is manufactured out of the sources of strength, and it must ultimately be paid for, and with interest.

Sunglasses make the world quieter and safer, as if you are viewing things behind smoked windows fronting your skull-house: you are inside and the world is outside, and the world cannot see into you; mirror sunglasses double the armor.

For we all must build our worlds around us, bravely or dreamily, as long as we can we shelter ourselves from the rain, walling ourselves in gorgeously.

They sat around accessing media all day and talking about it, and nothing ever seemed to get done. —All Tomorrow’s Parties

You could buy a burrito there, a lottery ticket, batteries, tests for various diseases. You could do voice-mail, e-mail, send faxes. It had occurred to Laney that this was probably the only store for miles that sold anything that anyone ever really needed; the others all sold things that he couldn’t even imagine wanting. Idoru

I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.

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