10 Books That Brilliantly Capture LA’s Identity

Photo of Vannessa Jackson
26 December 2016

The reality of daily life in Los Angeles and the tales of glitz and glam the rest of the world knows it by are very rarely one in the same. Behind all the smoke and mirrors and the allure of fame, there are far greater things to be seen and experienced. Every now and then, an author comes along and is able to so beautifully highlight what it means to live the center of the Hollywood gaze. Here are the 10 books that best capture the complicated essence of Los Angeles.

The Studio by John Gregory Dunne

Of course no list about LA would be even close to complete without mention of a book that showcases the motion picture industry. John Gregory Dunne was offered complete access to the inner workings of 20th Century Fox for an entire year, and the result was The Studio, a book that shows what it’s really like for those who live in LA and aspire to be in this industry, or those affected by the seemingly seedy underbelly of the showbiz machine.

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey

James Frey’s career was nearly destroyed when it was discovered that he lied about his two first works of non-fiction (and he lied to to Oprah, nonetheless). However, the author soon bounced back with this true work of fiction that perfectly describes what it is like to live in the true city of angels. At times raunchy, and at times humorous, Bright Shiny Morning is a surprisingly honest look at the city through the eyes of an Angelino.

Bright Shiny Morning Cover | © HarperCollins Publishers

The Harry Bosch Novels By Michael Connelly

There is nothing better than crime novels set in the city of Los Angeles. Something about murders happening only a stone’s throw away from the richest people in the world is spot on. Amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, ocean views, and interesting sights, every Los Angeles native knows that there is a darker side to the city. Something about this series is the greatest portrayal of some of the scariest parts of the city. It’s true what they say: every rose has its thorns.

Harry Bosch Series Cover | © Grand Central Publishing

Play It as It Lays By Joan Didion

Play It as It Lays has found a place in the lexicon of modern American classics for years, and for good reasons. The setting in the 1960s really helps lay the foundation and provide context for modern Los Angeles. It’s not hard to read this classic and understand how LA became the place that it is today, and to understand the allure of what the city once stood for, for so many people over the years. No author does a better job of this than Joan Didion.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler has set many of his books in LA, and for good reason. He is one of the rare authors who really provides a great look into life in this city. A mix between the utopia people run to for solace and the dystopia many inevitably end up running from, The Big Sleep is a great look at the vices that keep people entering and leaving LA on the regular. The dangers of this city are varied, but somehow they aren’t bad enough to keep people away for long.

The Big Sleep Cover | © Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Bathwater Wine by Wanda Coleman

Be warned, this book isn’t for the faint of heart. Coleman does a great job of highlighting some of the poverty, violence, and hate present in the city. It’s a great book of poetry, but it will leave you more ready to change and make a difference in the city than it will encourage you to look for some fun sites. It’s LA at its worst, but somehow it’s an incredible read. She manages to help those who haven’t been here before to understand the risks and issues at hand, which are still very much at play to this day.

Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams

Southern California: An Island on the Land is such a great exploration of the city. Even though it covers the period from 1920 to 1940, there is still a lot that native LA residents understand. McWilliams has a heart for the city, and it shines through in this book. Nothing is sugar-coated, and it leaves nothing to be desired, which means you get a full view of how modern LA came to be.

Southern California: An Island on the Land Cover | © Smith, Gibbs Publisher

The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty

Now don’t let the title of this novel confuse you. It is both a hilarious and honest portrayal of some of the deepest themes still alive in the city. When the protagonist of the story, Gunnar Kaufman, is uprooted from life in Santa Monica to West Los Angeles, he discovers something that all LA natives soon learn: the lines between glamour and calamity are very blurred within this city, and you can just as easily find yourself in the center of the fame machine or in abject poverty. Sadly, sometimes, that game of chance is what entices people the most.

City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles by Mike Davis

No author does a greater job of highlighting LA in all its glory than Mike Davis. Love it or hate it, you will definitely leave City of Quartz with a strong opinion about this city. It demands to be thought about, and it won’t take no for an answer. Everybody feels something powerful when it comes to their opinion about the city, and Davis shows that there are two sides to every city.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

If you came to the city looking to fulfill a dream, then you will understand the struggle of the two characters in this book. The Hours captures the plea of many people who live and love in the city of Los Angeles, and he questions the oasis it is to many who choose to make it a home. It’s an unforgiving place, but if you can make it here, then you can make it anywhere. Cunningham does a great job of showing the city at its finest through the stories and lives of his characters.

The Hours Cover | © Picador

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