Books about San Francisco capture the atmosphere of this iconic American city. The steep hills and thick fog that shroud this city have made San Francisco a counterpoint to the old cities of the American East. As one of the centers of California’s 19th-century gold rush, San Francisco cemented its place in the American psyche as a city of opportunity and new beginnings; many books about San Francisco explore this entrepreneurial spirit.
The city’s rich history has provided a compelling backdrop to many books about San Francisco. The city provided a haven for those seeking a new life in the wide-open American West, and many early books about San Francisco focused on the experiences of these immigrants as they settled in the city. Later, as soldiers came home from World War II and beatniks and hippies began flocking to San Francisco, books about San Francisco began to deal with the burgeoning counterculture taking root in the city.
#1 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
In this whimsical and magical tale set in San Francisco, a former web designer ends up working in a mysterious bookstore. Clay Jannon quickly discovers that the store attracts many visitors looking for unusual books, despite the store’s poor sales and limited customer base. He soon discovers a secret society and a world he never could have imagined.
#2 – On the Road
Inspired by the travels of the author, On the Road begins with the events of a trip in San Francisco. While in San Francisco, Sal Paradise takes a low-paying job as a night watchmen on the pier. When the job loses its appeal, Sal begins a cross-country journey that changes his worldview. Along with other books about San Francisco, this book helped solidify the city’s place as a bastion of liberal counterculture.
#3 – The Joy Luck Club
San Francisco is a great melting pot for diverse cultures, and many books about San Francisco deal with the struggles of immigrants to find their own community. In The Joy Luck Club, a group of four Chinese immigrant women meet regularly in their new San Francisco homes to play mahjong. During each meeting, the group shares the heartaches and the joys of each family’s experiences as they adjust to their new city.
#4 – The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon follows Sam Spade, one of the most well-known fictional detectives, in a noir detective book set in San Francisco. Spade must contend with unexpected twists, murderous villains and shifting alliances. Although Spade begins with a simple case to locate a missing person, his partner’s murder makes him realize that this case will be anything but easy.
#5 – Al Capone Does My Shirts
As the final home to many of America’s most famous criminals, Alcatraz Island has featured prominently in many books about San Francisco. Al Capone Does My Shirts recounts the fictional adventures of Moose Flanagan after his family moves to Alcatraz Island for his father’s job. While living on the island, Moose experience many new things, including taking care of his autistic sister, falling into dangerous situations with the warden’s daughter, and living near some of the prison’s most notorious inmates, including Al Capone.
#6 – Telegraph Avenue
In the last days of the summer of 2004, the owners of a small used vinyl store face almost certain closure when a former NFL star intends to build a large shopping center nearby. Meanwhile, the wives of the store owners face their own dramas when their midwifery business is connected to a racially charged incident at a local hospital. This character-driven book invites readers to take a close look at the connections and complexities of regular people in the San Francisco Bay area.
#7 – Tales of the City
Tales of the City is a series of fictional books about San Francisco that illustrate some of the many unique citizens of the city. After a vacation to the San Francisco, Mary Ann Singleton decides to stay and moves into an apartment building that is home to a variety of fascinating characters with different backgrounds. The books were published serially, allowing the author to insert a number of current events into their plots.
#8 – The Bridge Trilogy
Beginning with Virtual Light, this series of three books about San Francisco presents an alternative history where both San Francisco and Tokyo were dramatically changed by a major earthquake. Chevette Washington stumbles across a pair of strange glasses that are vitally important to the future of San Francisco. A shadowy organization soon begins to chase Chevette.
#9 – Golden Gate
This novel about San Francisco, written entirely in verse, follows four yuppies as they muse on everything from love to the future of the planet. Although many of the events in the book are banal, such as a couple arguing over the antics of the cat, the imagery and lyrical nature of the book excels at describing San Francisco in the 1980s.
#10 – Virgin Soul
While attending college in San Francisco during the 1960s, Geniece becomes involved in the Black Panther movement. As Geniece increasingly embraces the group’s militant beliefs, she grows distant from her family and struggles to balance the demands of school and her love life. Like the characters in other books about San Francisco from this time period, the characters in Virgin Soul go through changes that mirror the changes that the city itself was undergoing.