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10 Books To Teach You About San Francisco Culture

Picture of Aviva Schmitz
Updated: 1 March 2016
The culture of San Francisco is as diverse and multi-faceted as its population, but thanks to the work of these authors, it’s possible to learn a lot about it without leaving the comfort of your own home. Check out these ten books that teach you about San Francisco culture, and pick one to curl up with on your next rainy day!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an incisive examination of the clash between online and print media that many cities, especially the startup hub of San Francisco, are currently grappling with. Author Robin Sloan tells the story of a Silicon Valley tech worker who has lost his job and is forced to work in a dreary bookstore. He soon learns, however, that there is more behind the dusty volumes than meets the eye. The book earned a spot on the San Francisco Chronicle’s list top books of 2012, as well as the New York Times Hardcover Fiction Best Seller List.

The Basic Eight

Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight follows San Francisco high school student Flannery Culp through her diary entries. The novel deals with typical teenage concerns, like standardized testing and summer love, but the plot is far from superficial – it ends in a string of terrifying discoveries, including murder. But with Handler, dark subject matter is expected, as he is also the author of the famously gloomy children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events, which waspublished under the pen name Lemony Snicket. The Basic Eight offers a grown up taste of this macabre spirit, along with a dose of San Francisco youth culture.

Daniel Handler © Mike Huang/Wikipedia
Daniel Handler | © Mike Huang/Wikipedia

The Silver Cloud Café

Set in modern day San Francisco, The Silver Cloud Café is sure to engage you right from the start. The first pages take you straight to the scene of a hideous murder in the Mission District, and the plot becomes more complex when a Filipino immigrant is accused of the crime and a defense lawyer with ties to migrant farm workers is assigned to defend him. In 352 pages, author Alfredo Véa, Jr. takes you on a journey of mystery and violence while exposing the racial and economic tensions of San Francisco in the early ‘90s.

Street in the Mission © Emile Lombard/Flickr
Street in the Mission | © Emile Lombard/Flickr

Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words

If you’re a fan of Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York photo series, you’ll love Wendy MacNaughton’s Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in its Own Words. This beautiful book places the artist’s drawings of San Francisco residents alongside their stories and allows you to see the city through someone else’s eyes. From MUNI drivers to farmers market sellers and more, this book is sure to give you a raw look at the people, places, and traditions that make up this vibrant city.

San Francisco © Jarrett M/Flickr
San Francisco | © Jarrett M/Flickr

The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld

If you’re looking for an alternative history lesson that’s far more interesting than anything you’d find in an academic textbook, try Herbert Asbury’s The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. This book deals with the Gold Rush in 1849 and delves into the debauchery that followed the influx of hopeful gold seekers. Corruption, prostitution, gambling, banditry, and drug rings abound in this book, and no stone is left unturned in this shameless description of the Wild West.

Landscape: Memory

Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory is a novel that follows two young boys as they become friends, and then lovers, in the wake of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The landscape becomes central to the boys’ relationship, and their exploration of the city’s beaches and forests in search of evidence of the earthquake will reinforce any reader’s appreciation for San Francisco’s natural beauty. Disastrous circumstances eventually force the boys to separate, but their story will remain with you long after the final page.

Land’s End Beach © Karen Roe/Flickr
Land’s End Beach | © Karen Roe/Flickr

The Circle

The Circle by Dave Eggers, provides a seldom-seen look at the dark side of San Francisco startup culture. The novel narrates the story of Mae Holland, an employee at a powerful tech company that makes surveillance products that promise to increase transparency and openness, but it’s not long before Mae starts to see that these devices come at a heavy price. If you’re at all interested in the issues of privacy in an increasingly connected world, you’re sure to love this creative interpretation of a debate that is all too real.

Al Capone Does My Shirts

Although this novel is generally considered young adult literature, adults will love it as well. Through the funny and unfailingly honest voice of 12-year-old Moose Flanagan, author Gennifer Choldenko tells the story of a family who lives on Alcatraz Island. Moose’s father is an electrician and guard who warns his children against associating with any of the prisoners, but Moose and his friend Piper succeed in forming an unlikely alliance. For anyone fascinated by the legacy of Alcatraz Island and the secrets it holds, this book will capture your attention right away.

Alcatraz Island © Dennis Jarvis/Flickr
Alcatraz Island | © Dennis Jarvis/Flickr


1906 is a masterful work of historical fiction by James Dalessandro that details the chaos that descended upon San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. Rather than focusing on the destruction itself, the novel zeros in on the social forces at work in the city. This novel tells the tale of bureaucratic and political corruption, love affairs, and murder, all of which occur while San Francisco burns. The book’s unusual perspective is sure to change the way you think about this important event in San Francisco’s history.

Mission District in Flames © H.D. Chadwick/Wikipedia
Mission District in Flames | © H.D. Chadwick/Wikipedia


If you’re at all intrigued by serial killers and unsolved murders, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Robert Graysmith’s Zodiac, a non-fiction book about San Francisco’s Zodiac killer. This infamous serial killer was active in Northern California in the 1960s and ‘70s, and his identity is still unknown. Graysmith was a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle when the Zodiac killer began to send letters to the newspaper for publication. These letters, along with Graysmith’s ten years of research and interviews with law enforcement, culminate in an exciting and entirely factual account of one of the most notorious serial killers of all time.

San Francisco Street at Night © R. Lex-M/Flickr
San Francisco Street at Night | © R. Lex-M/Flickr

By Aviva Schmitz

Originally from Oakland, California, Aviva is a sophomore at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts majoring in English and Spanish. When she is not busy studying languages or exploring the Greater Boston Area, she can often be found pursuing her other passions, which include eating, drinking bubble tea, and sleeping. She also writes for two campus publications, the Tufts Daily and The Zamboni, a humor magazine. After college she hopes to continue writing and eating her way around the world.