Best Books About San Francisco

There are a lot of books out there that are either about or based in San Francisco: classics like The Maltese Falcon and Jack Kerouac's On The Road, and more contemporary works such as Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Michelle Tea's Valencia. Whether you're a first-timer to the city or have lived here for decades, here are the best titles for delving into the wonderful world of the City by the Bay.

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Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

Tales of the City

For a look into San Francisco of the 70s and 80s, pick up this eye-opening series. While a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Maupin wrote this fictional story of Midwestern-transplant Mary Ann Singleton and the other tenants and landlord of 28 Barbary Lane, in the city's Russian Hill neighborhood, complete with bath houses, affordable rents, and plenty of weed. The column was penned in real time, so Maupin often reacted to real-life events, including the AIDS epidemic. Now the series serves as a lovely ode to the San Francisco of yore.  

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Season of the Witch by David Talbot

Season of the Witch

 A sprawling non-fiction narrative of the culture shifts that came before and after the Summer of Love. While hippies, drugs, and even the Grateful Dead and their Haight-Ashbury ties factor into the seismic cultural shifts of this iconic time period, you may be surprised to learn how slow progress really was, and that some movements backfired as others led to violent ends. It’s a great read to remind you that even in one of the most progressive places in the country, rebirth remains a slow and steady beast. 

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Cool, Gray City of Love by Gary Kamiya

Cool, Gray City of Love

Mixing personal experience with historical statistics and tidbits, Kamiya has penned one of the prettiest love letters to San Francisco. Part walking tour, part fly-on-the-wall (Kamiya was a taxi driver in his younger years), the author’s first-person chapters (49 of them) inspire wonder and awe at San Francisco’s sweeping vistas such as those from Lands End and the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as its quirky characters (and there are many). The historical chapters offer insight into the Ferry Building, the 1906 quake, and San Francisco’s formative years. 

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The Mayor of Castro Street by Randy Shilts

From the tiny Castro neighborhood camera shop that he owned and worked to his tragic assassination at SF City Hall, pioneer figure Harvey Milk changed the face of San Francisco politics and gave rise to the city's gay rights movement. Shilts traces the movement from its origins through Milk’s murder and the subsequent aftermath.

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The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey

The Devil's Teeth

Though not quite within San Francisco proper, The Devil’s Teeth is a nickname once given to the Farallon Islands, a rocky, ocean-batter outcrop 30 miles outside the city in the Pacific Ocean. It’s a national wildlife refuge for birds, seals, and sharks – really, really big ones, in fact. Casey spends a full season on the Farallons counting birds and tagging 20-foot-long Great Whites off their shores, and the world she encounters is as enlightening as it is spectacular. 

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Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner

This graphic novel details the life of Minnie Goetze, a teenager coming of age in the tumultuous 60s, with a pretty negligent single mother and her mother's boyfriend, who aids our fair heroin in losing her virginity. It’s a rocking and rolling story, beautifully illustrated in Gloeckner’s comic style.

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A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Heads up before you dive into this honker – it’s got some pretty heavy subject matter. Eggers has created a memoir that details the deaths of both his parents, occurring in just a matter of months from one another, and consequently raising his younger brother. He finds some solace by moving to the Bay Area. Most of the story – including memorial depictions of Berkeley and Ocean Beach – unravels from there. 

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We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

Pirates are terrorizing San Francisco in the 21st century in Daniel Handler's fun, fictional, and somewhat bizarre novel set on the waters of San Francisco Bay. The story features a few teens, an old man, and a pirate ship, along with a surprise ending to boot. 

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The Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark Bittner

Like many of the young people in San Francisco in the 70s, Bittner was a bit aimless. That is, until he found the parrots of Telegraph Hill. This is the story of his six-year-and-counting bond with the them, who frequent the steep hills close to Coit Tower. It’s a fun, entertaining story and one in which you can actually encounter its stars first-hand, often in nearby North Beach.

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Meanwhile in San Francisco by Wendy McNaughton

Meanwhile in San Francisco

This illustrated book gives insight into the San Francisco that tourists often don’t see. With quotes from Muni drivers, overheard quips from the San Francisco Public Library (which, by the way, has branches in the Presidio, Mission, and Chinatown, among others) and and plenty of other interesting word clips accompanying McNaughton's own stunning drawings. It’s a quick and easy read, but makes a great gift for anyone who loves the city. 

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