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The 8 Books on Los Angeles to Read Next
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The 8 Books on Los Angeles to Read Next

While the city plays a role in shaping its people, Angelenos capture its aura and soul in these literary masterpieces.

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5 min read

June 22, 2021

If you had to describe Los Angeles in three words, what would you say? Hollywood? Glamour? La la land? The City of Angels has inspired so many literary and musical giants that showed us a whole new perspective on the way of life in this world-renowned SoCal city. With the wealth and fame of L.A. comes an unexposed side—one less put on display. And since our summer reading list needs updating, what better way to discover it all than reading books on Los Angeles?

Memoirs, comedy, and classic books set in Los Angeles highlight the different faces of the city. You have Hollywood, Downtown, the Valley—each is unique, but they’re all L.A. While the city plays a role in shaping its people, Angelenos capture its aura and soul in these literary masterpieces.

The Books About L.A. That Belong On Your Reading List

From the first known photo taken in L.A. to its most recent sweeping vistas, this photographic tribute provides a fascinating journey through history.

1. Los Angeles: Portrait of a City

Authors: Kevin Starr, David L. Ulin, Jim Heimann

There’s no denying that L.A. is the most enigmatic city in the world, and the best way to see that is by reading history books on Los Angeles. For some, it’s hard to imagine how the city managed to become a sprawling metropolis in such a short amount of time. Los Angeles: Portrait of a City takes readers on a journey through the cultural, political, industrial, as well as sociological history of L.A. This book is a photographic tribute to the City of Angeles—from its iconic panoramas to the first-known photo taken in L.A., readers learn how a desert wasteland transformed into the Entertainment Capital of the World. 

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2. Ask the Dust

Author: John Fante

If you majored in American literature, you’re probably already familiar with Ask the Dust by John Fante. Considered an L.A. classic, this semi-autobiographical novel is set in L.A. during the Great Depression. The main character is Arturo Bandini, an Italian American from Colorado, who hopes to make it big as a writer in the City of Angels. Expecting to find himself in a land of opportunities, Bandini discovers the earthquakes that crack the cement and the Santa Ana winds that blow dust through palm trees—the heart of the city wasn’t all fame and fortune. Fante explores themes of poverty, Catholicism, family life, Italian-American identity, sports, and the life of a writer in one of the best books about L.A. 

Waugh began writing The Loved One in May 1947, and it was published in its entirety by Cyril Connolly in the February 1948 issue of Horizon.

3. The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy

Author: Evelyn Waugh

Sting was an Englishman in New York, and Evelyn Waugh was one in Los Angeles. The British novelist wrote The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy after his trip to Hollywood. His experience resulted in creating one of the most entertaining books about L.A. This satirical novel delves into the movie industry, the British expat community, and even the pet funeral business in Los Angeles. If you thought these three were random topics, you’ll be surprised to find out that Waugh even manages to create a connection between the three. Discover L.A. through the eyes of an Englishman and head out to your nearest used bookstore to buy a copy of this dark comedy. 

Hollywood Notebook is a prose poem-ish memoir of fragments that takes readers through the streets of Los Angeles and the charted internal maps.

4. Hollywood Notebook

Author: Wendy C. Ortiz

Essayist, psychotherapist, poet, and author Wendy C. Ortiz transports readers to the streets of Los Angeles in Hollywood Notebook. The shape-shifting book consists of journal entry-like stories, moments, and emotional fireworks. The prose poem-ish memoir serves as a portrait of Ortiz’s psyche overlaid on the map of L.A. Readers enjoy navigating through the city while they picture Ortiz as a free-wheeling woman in her twenties figuring out what the world has to offer her. From love and loss to transformation and change, Hollywood Notebook reflects on the lessons the author learned as a young woman. Add this must-read book by a female author and you won’t regret reading one of the best books set in Los Angeles

Time magazine included Play It As It Lays in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

5. Play It As It Lays

Author: Joan Didion

Literary giant Joan Didion managed to capture the mood of an entire generation in the span of 200 pages. Play It As It Lays is essentially a ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, exposing that Hollywood glamour isn’t all fun and games. Protagonist Maria Wyeth struggles with her mental health as a series of unfortunate events leads her career and personal life to collapse. Love, death, and disaster follow her as she tries to control the chaos in her life. Whether or not she manages to overcome these obstacles, it’s for you to find out. 

In a wide-ranging and diverse mix of essays published over a span of over 30 years, Sarafian explores the complexities of the immigrant experience.

6. Endless Crossings: Reflections on Armenian Art and Culture in Los Angeles 

Author: Arpi Sarafian

Any book on Los Angeles will show you that the City of Angels is a melting pot of cultures. Literary critic Arpi Sarafian discloses the complexities of the immigrant experience in Endless Crossings: Reflections of Armenian Art and Culture in Los Angeles. Sarafian depicts the realities of identity as well as deconstructing the polarity between ethnic and mainstream. One of the things that makes this book stand out is the idea of dropping the hyphen from Armenian-American (or Chinese-American, Mexican-American, etc.)—adding the hyphen results in creating a hierarchy that values the “majority” culture and demeaning the “other” culture. From deploring the gradual loss of ethnic identity to finding its way into the mainstream, this collection of essays exposes how immigrants have sustained their culture in the City of Angels. 

Among the flickering neon portraits are essays, anecdotes, and stories from artists, writers, actors, and musicians about their own personal L.A.

7. Abandoned and Historic Los Angeles: Neon and Beyond

Author: Jason Horton

There’s something about L.A. that makes us feel like we’ve been there before. The buildings are familiar, even if it’s your first time visiting. The palm tree-lined streets and crowded highways aren’t deemed unfamiliar, despite the fact that you haven’t seen them. You’ve seen it in your favorite movie, you’ve scrolled past it on your Instagram feed. Whatever the reason is, it’s all these vintage signs, storefronts, and historic landmarks that shape L.A.’s character. Jason Horton shows readers his favorite architecture, signage, and urban patina—he discloses the stories behind every flickering neon sign. Uncover the pictorial history of the city with the help of this interesting book on Los Angeles

In the Not Quite Dark is a powerful collection of stories with deep insight into character and intimate relationships.

8. In the Not Quite Dark

Author: Dana Johnson

If there’s one Black writer from California you should know about, it’s Dana Johnson. The writer and Associate Professor at the University of Southern California blessed us with her 2016 publication In the Not Quite Dark, which is a collection of 11 stories that take place in and around Los Angeles. The short stories touch upon topics like love, class, and race, and how they impact our lives and define our most intimate moments. Depicting the search for personal freedom and portraying how differently relationships can progress, In the Not Quite Dark offers a reading experience that’s both timeless and contemporary. 

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