Constance M, A Well-Read Wanderer
13 Great Books Set in San Francisco, California
Updated: Jan 19
In case you haven't been around my blog or my Instagram page much, a few months ago I got to spend some time in the San Francisco Bay Area exploring the many San Francisco literary sites and bookstores.
If you missed it, check out my 5 favorite San Francisco bookstores.
As per usual, as soon as I'd decided to visit the Bay Area, I made a San Francisco reading list for myself and started to read my way through the city. That reading has continued since my trip ended, and now I'm ready to share with you my recommendations of some of the best books set in San Francisco to read before your next trip (or after, or while you're dreaming of that trip. I won't judge).
San Francisco is a city with a fascinating history and a famously unique variety of denizens. With this list of San Francisco books, I have tried to touch on many aspects of the city's diverse history and heritage, though there are still so many more facets to the city that haven't been represented on this book list.
I will never claim one of my recommended reading lists to be exhaustive, or to cover every aspect of a city's geography, culture, or history. Still, the recommending has to begin somewhere!
California, and San Francisco in particular, is known as a unique place where people outside the mainstream gravitate to live and test out their theories through the great experiment of life. Appropriately, you'll find many of these books set in San Francisco to be quite unique, and as such, they won't all be to everyone's taste.
In the spirit of San Francisco's culture of experimentation and eccentricity, I'd encourage you to keep an open mind; try a book that sounds like something you'd not normally pick up, and engage with it!
So whether you're looking for the best novels set in San Francisco, or some non-fiction books about San Francisco, or a great San Francisco mystery novel, this list is a great starting point for you to begin your literary exploration of the city.
Jump ahead to:
McTeague by Frank Norris
Ambrose Bierce Mystery Series by Oakley Hall
Letters from Alcatraz by Michael Esslinger
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
HOWL and other poems by Allen Ginsberg
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
San Francisco Noir 2 Edited by Peter Maravelis
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
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Pin this post to reference when planning your San Francisco Bay Area itinerary:
1. McTeague by Frank Norris
Of all the novels set in San Francisco I ended up reading, this one might have been the biggest surprise for me, in all the best ways.
I originally read McTeague because Frank Norris is a San Francisco writer of some fame, and because there is a saloon in San Francisco (McTeague's Saloon) inspired by the story. Before doing my San Francisco book research, though, I'd never heard anyone talk about it! What a shame!
This quirky story kept me absolutely enthralled, with its easygoing writing, its unlikeable and even grotesque characters, and a plot that takes you places you never expect it to go. I won't give any more away, as this is a book best enjoyed knowing as little as possible before diving into it.
San Francisco Travel Tip: While you're in San Francisco, make sure you swing by McTeague's Saloon on Polk Street (the street on which McTeague lived and worked in the book). It's named after the book, and the sign outside is that of a giant, gilded tooth, a reference to the book as well.
2. Ambrose Bierce Mystery Series by Oakley Hall
In the 1860s-1880s, Ambrose Bierce was perhaps the most notorious writer and satirist in the Western United States. His scathing, undeniably witty, social criticisms targeted everything from war to religion to feminism to political corruption and earned him the moniker, "the wickedest man in San Francisco." Talk about the pen being mightier than the sword; Ambrose Bierce decimated every prominent societal or political figure of his day.
Fast forward a century, and we meet another San Francisco-based writer, Oakley Hall. Hall was fascinated with Ambrose Bierce and began writing a San Francisco mystery series featuring a fictionalized Ambrose Bierce as the lead investigator and tongue-in-cheek, Sherlockian antihero.
The Amborse Bierce Mystery Series has been out of print for some time, but if you can get your hands on any copies used, they make for some fun, light-hearted reading, in which you'll learn about San Francisco, its history, and one author's take on one of the city's most infamous writers.
This had to make it onto my San Francisco book list if for no other reason than the sheer meta nature of a San Francisco author writing about a historical San Francisco author solving San Francisco mysteries.
Fun fact: Oakley Hall was also a writing teacher and at one point taught one of the other authors on this list, Amy Tan.
3. Letters from Alcatraz by Michael Esslinger
There is no shortage of books written about the infamous Alcatraz island prison, the haunting (and possibly haunted) landmark just visible through the mist of the San Francisco Bay. You can find memoirs written by prisoners as well as by guards and plenty of scholarly and historical perspectives on the place. While I can't claim to have read every single one of them, Letters from Alcatraz by Michael Esslinger is a really good place to start among the many Alcatraz books out there.
Letters from Alcatraz provides a unique perspective on the prison's fascinating history: it primarily consists of primary sources – that is, letters, written by, to, and about such notorious Alcatraz prisoners as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and many more. Following a well-written introduction that gives a concise history of the prison island, each subsequent chapter in the book is dedicated to telling one prisoner's story.
If you are interested in non-fiction books about San Francisco and specifically about Alcatraz, this book is a great way to give you a deeper understanding before taking a tour of the island in-person.
4. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
This moving novel is famous for good reason. The Joy Luck Club tells the stories of eight Chinese women who have immigrated to the United States and of their American-born daughters. Through a narrative of shifting perspectives, Amy Tan powerfully conveys the love between mothers and daughters as well as the many secrets and misunderstandings that arise not just generationally but culturally as well.
The narrative thread takes the reader back and forth between San Francisco and China and is a great read to get a glimpse into Chinese immigrant history and culture in San Francisco.
San Francisco Travel Tip: Amy Tan has lived in the Bay Area for most of her career. You can find her recommended spots to visit in San Francisco here.
5. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
If you're interested in books set in San Francisco during the hippie era of the 1960s, pick up a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. It was published in 1968 and is a collection of columns that Didion wrote for The Saturday Evening Post over several years. It gives a peek into the tail end of California's countercultural revolutions of the 1960s and the subsequent harsh descent into the disillusioned 70s from the vantage point of someone who lived through it and was intimately acquainted with it.
Didion was a writer who rejected the idea that a newspaper columnist should be an invisible presence in the stories they write; the result makes for some very human, unique essays, in which the reader can imagine him/herself in Didion's place.
"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."
Joan Didion, preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem
In its entirety, it's not exclusively a book set in San Francisco, but the majority of the chapters center on California in the 1960s. Two columns in particular are worthwhile reads for anyone visiting San Francisco: the title essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and "Rock of Ages."
San Francisco Travel Tip: Give this collection a read to help you better appreciate both the Haight-Ashbury District and Alcatraz on your visit to San Francisco.
6. The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
This short, memorable novel is unlike any of the others on this list of books set in San Francisco. Published in 2012 and winner of the Pen-Faulkner Award, The Buddha in the Attic tells about an important part of San Francisco history in a truly unusual way.
In its eight short sections, this book follows the journey of the Japanese "picture brides" who were quite literally shipped from their homes in Japan to San Francisco to marry Japanese men who had moved to San Francisco and were now (allegedly) established and ready to support a family.
The Buddha in the Attic is written unlike any other book I've read; in order to demonstrate the enormity of the experiences of these Japanese women, Otsuka employs the "we" pronoun through the entire novel. Rather than following the story of just one or two "Picture Brides," this historical fiction San Francisco novel seeks to tell, if not all stories, then as many as possible.
“We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting."
While this writing style is a little off-putting, I think it effectively conveys not only the diversity of experience by these women, but even more so their common experiences of loneliness, displacement, longing, love, and fear.
San Francisco Travel Tip: Add this to your reading list if you plan to visit Angel Island, the "Ellis Island" of the West, where Chinese and Japanese immigrants were detained for up to 6 months before either being granted admittance to the US or deported back to their homelands.
7. HOWL and other poems by Allen Ginsberg
You can't talk about San Francisco books without mention of Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg. His long form poem, HOWL, shook San Franciscans to their core at his famous reading of it at the Six Gallery in 1953.
Inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman, the poem HOWL and the others in this book are experimental, grotesque, provocative, but hopeful. They're meant to evoke a sort of post-apocalyptic, dream-like vision of the past, present, and future.
HOWL is a poem best read aloud in order to truly understand the effect that Ginsberg was striving for. If you'd rather not listen to your own voice, consider listening to a recording of Ginsberg reading the poem himself.
San Francisco Travel Tip: I put together a post about the best Beat Generation sites in San Francisco here, including the Six Gallery and Ginsberg's apartment.
8. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Of course this list of books set in San Francisco has to include the (in)famous, mostly autobiographical novel, On the Road, by Beat Generation frontman Jack Kerouac.
On the Road has continued to be polarizing since its publication in 1957. Upon publication, it gained a cult following in many circles, something that continues to this day. You'll find it on plenty of 100 Best Novels of All Time lists and cited by many a celebrity as their favorite book. Its staunch fan base lauds On the Road as
"the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is" (Gilbert Millstein, The New York Times).
Those who are less enamored of Kerouac's work have decried it as over-hyped, misogynist, pointless, and self-indulgent.
Love it or hate it, this is a book that not only defined the Beat movement but also undeniably influenced future movements, from Hippies to Grunge to Hipsters. I think it's worthwhile to read if only to form your own opinion of it.
San Francisco Travel Tip: Jack Kerouac wrote most of On the Road while staying in San Francisco. You can check out the house where he wrote it on my list of Beat Generation Sites to see in San Francisco.
9. Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I've written about the Beat Generation writers on this blog a couple of times now, and it's because they played such a pivotal role in the development of San Francisco's literary heritage as well as the larger counterculture movement in the United States.
One of the most important, and oft overlooked, figures from the Beat Generation of writers is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, original owner of the City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishing House. In the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, Ferlinghetti sought out and fostered new writing talent; he published Ginsberg's HOWL and stood trial for charges of obscenity for doing so, winning a landmark case in the history of free speech in the US.
Ferlinghetti was a writer as well, and the first book in City Lights Publishing's Pocket Poets series was a short collection of his own poems, Pictures of the Gone World. Pick this one up in addition to HOWL and On the Road to round out your Beat Generation reading list with a lesser known but highly influential voice of San Francisco.
San Francisco Travel Tip: Ferlinghetti's famous bookstore, City Lights, is a site you can't miss while in San Francisco.
10. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A Visit From the Goon Squad is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in the punk rock music scene of San Francisco and Los Angeles, California.
It’s part short story collection, part novel, with each chapter telling the story of a character whose life intersects with another’s, however briefly. It is the thinnest thread that connects the narratives together, which makes the read a little jarring, but the overall effect is quite moving. It’s one of the most unique novels I’ve read in recent years.
A Visit From the Goon Squad is an interesting novel set in San Francisco that will appeal especially to music lovers, though anyone with an open mind I think can enjoy it. Remember when I mentioned that you'll find a lot of "oddball" books on this list? One of the most oft-talked about chapters in A Visit from the Goon Squad is not a chapter at all, but a PowerPoint Presentation (yes, you read that correctly).
While it takes place multiple places, including various places in California, there’s enough San Francisco-based content for it to merit a spot on this list.
Reader's Tip: Check out this really interesting interview with author Jennifer Egan about the book in the Washington Post.
11. San Francisco Noir 2: The Classics edited by Peter Maravelis
Overall, the San Francisco Noir 2 anthology is a good way to dive into the seedier side of San Francisco. While a bit uneven in quality, the first half of the volume in particular gives a good sampling of many of the writers who've been inspired by the underbelly of San Francisco over the years.
You'll get snippets of writings by literary heavyweights such as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, and Jack London. Some of the later stories included in the volume are worthwhile reads, while some are only worth skimming. Still, it's a fascinating look at the grittier neighborhoods and stories of San Francisco.
12. The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
This book is really, really beautiful. My favorite novels are ones that don't just tell a story; they convey the complexity of the human experience in a way that is resonant and stirring and memorable. This novel does just that.
The Story of a Marriage is about Pearlie Cook and her husband, Holland, who live in San Francisco's Sunset District in the 1950s. They are an African American couple living out their American Dream in a new development of idyllic post-World War II "white picket fence" homes, but is everything as it seems? The arrival of a mysterious white man on their doorstep claiming to know Holland just might change everything the couple thinks they know and want.
This wonderful San Francisco novel incorporates themes of war, race, home, friendship, sexuality, and marriage. Above all, though, it asks the questions: what is love? Can you ever really know another person? What do you need in life to find happiness? What would happen if you were to take a step closer and truly examine the ones you love and your relationships with them?
"We think we know them. We think we love them. But what we love turns out to be a poor translation, a translation we ourselves have made, from a language we barely know."
The Story of a Marriage gets one of my highest recommendations on this list.
13. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers is somewhat of a polarizing author, not unlike Kerouac, whom we discussed earlier. Eggers gained a massive fan base and perhaps an equally large number of critics. Many would call him overrated, or no longer relevant. Still, I think A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius deserves a spot on this list of books to read set in San Francisco.
I think a case can be made for this book as a grandchild of Kerouac's On the Road. It's written by another privileged white American male, who is also wandering self-consciously through life trying to mix with interesting people and have interestingly tragic and unique experiences and impress you by writing about them.
The book is split between Chicago and San Francisco, with the majority in the latter. You'll definitely be able to connect with the many San Francisco locations in the book, whether you read it before or after your visit.
I both liked and didn't like this book, but I think it's another one that's worth reading and deciding about for yourself.
That concludes my list of 13 books set in San Francisco to read before your next trip to the Bay Area. What books caught your eye? Have you read any of them before?
Any books you think deserve a spot on this list? Drop them in the comments!
Pin this for your reference when planning your next trip to the Bay Area