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If you’ve been searching for new ways to fill your time as California shelters in place, now’s the perfect opportunity to pick up a book and get to know the Golden State like never before. From hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to exploring the coast of Big Sur, to traveling across the mountains surrounding several of the state’s most popular national parks, you can scour the landscape of California from the comfort of your living room. While reading books set in California is not quite the same as booking a trip to Disneyland, spending a weekend at a coastal resort, or trekking around San Francisco on your own, it’s the next best thing.
So grab your comfy sweats, assemble your snacks, and get ready for the adventures of a lifetime with California’s best books to read right now.
1. East of Eden
By John Steinbeck
“And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good.”
Often considered to be Steinbeck’s most praised and ambitious work, East of Eden intricately depicts life in California’s Salinas Valley (located inland from Monterey Bay). The novel is a heart–wrenching tale of struggle, guilt, freedom, and the choices we all must make between good and evil.
2. Big Sur
by Jack Kerouac
“And when the fog's over and the stars and the moon come out at night it'll be a beautiful sight.”
While less famous than Kerouac’s esteemed novel On the Road, Big Sur is a worthwhile read whose plotline is solidly set along California’s coast. Illustrating portions of Kerouac’s own life that were previously unbeknownst to the general public, this novel unveils his struggles to combat physical and mental obstacles.
Kerouac’s life unfolds through the character Jack Duluoz. Overwhelmed by fame and pressure from others, his character takes comfort in a cabin in Big Sur’s Bixby Canyon, though he continues to grapple with his socially constructed image and his real life. Driven into loneliness and depression throughout his various stints in the isolated wilderness of Big Sur, Duluoz considers moving to San Francisco, but it soon becomes clear that escaping his inner thoughts doesn’t come as easily as switching locations.
3. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
by Cheryl Strayed
“I didn't feel sad or happy. I didn't feel proud or ashamed. I only felt that in spite of all the things I'd done wrong, in getting myself here, I'd done right.”
If you’ve been searching for books to read now, Strayed’s memoir Wild is the one to pick up next. As one of our favorite female authors, Strayed perfectly captures California’s landscape as she describes the ups and downs of the human condition.
Reeling from her mother’s death and the subsequent crumbling of her marriage, Strayed sets out onto the Pacific Crest Trail, leaving her everyday life behind in favor of the open wilderness and an adventure she’d never forget. Though she had yet to thru-hike a day in her life, Strayed proves that anything can be done when you set your mind to it—and that healing from heartache of all kinds takes time. This must-read book chronicles the trail throughout the entire state and beyond, beginning in the Mojave Desert of Southern California and ending up in Washington.
4. Where I was From
BY joaN Didion
“Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.”
In this collection of essays, Didion explores the truth and misunderstandings of what she’s been told while growing up in California. From the state’s history and culture to the misguided musings she’s clung to all her life, Didion exposes the discrepancies between the facts and the embellishments that have shaped her perspective.
5. Ana of California
by Andi Teran
“There's power in how we react to our situations, though.”
Ana of California is a modern novel with plenty of influences from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic tale Anne of Green Gables. Though the inspiration is evident, Teran’s version ought to be looked at without bias.
A 15-year-old orphan living in East L.A., Ana has used up her last chance with a foster family. Now, she must choose between living in a group home in SoCal or moving up to Northern California for a farm-trainee program. Deciding to give the unknown a shot, she sets out to the north, attempting to balance her hardened urban attitude with her desire to fit in.
6. West of Eden: An American Place
by Jean Stein
“Instead of being distressed by the huge moral discrepancy between the myth of Hollywood and its current reality, most of them only saw what already had been fixed in their minds.”
West of Eden is not one of your typical books about Los Angeles. The oral history reveals the hope and despair of Hollywood and the surrounding areas, describing five families as they cope with their dreams and disillusions.
Thanks to its unique style and variety of quoted individuals, West of Eden is one of the most controversial works on our list. Though the narrative divulges plenty about the characters, there is much more to be seen between the lines, so take your time as you get to know the intimate life details of these troubled families.
Farewell, My Lovely
by Raymond Chandler
“You can crab over the morning paper and kick the shins of the guy in the next seat at the movies and feel mean and discouraged and sneer at the politicians, but there are a lot of nice people in the world just the same.”
If you loved California’s true-crime podcasts, Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely should make it onto your next reading list. Complete with fortune tellers, thieves, and less-than-wholesome individuals, this page-turner is sure to pass the time quickly.
The Mountains of California
by John Muir
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
If you’ve been itching to travel around the Golden State and beyond, Muir’s The Mountains of California is a true classic, highlighting the oft-overlooked gems of the wilderness from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. This love letter to the state’s mountain ranges and natural wonders will rejuvenate your spirits, invigorate your senses, and remind you of the beauty that lies just outside your door.
Which book are you reaching for next? Let us know in the comments below.
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