The Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf: Nonfiction

The Griffith Observatory sits atop a pile of books with decorated spines.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

For our Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf, we asked writers with deep ties to the city to name their favorite Los Angeles books across eight categories or genres. Based on 95 responses, here are the 14 most essential books of general nonfiction, including histories by Kevin Starr, Carey McWilliams, Reyner Banham and, ruling them all, Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz.”

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How to Write Photoplays by Anita Loos and John Emerson, 1920

Born on the slopes of Mt. Shasta, Loos grew up to write sassy, exuberant feminist novels such as “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the libretto for “Gigi” and a sensational memoir, “No Mother to Guide Her.” She’d written hundreds of scripts by the time she published this still-useful how-to book, allegedly with her no-account husband. In it she writes, “Motion picture writing is as practical as plumbing, only the plums are bigger.” Does that sound like a book that deserves to be out of print? — DK


Los Angeles by Morrow Mayo, 1933

Although also woefully out of print, Mayo’s 1933 exegesis is, along with James M. Cain’s essay “Paradise” and Louis Adamic’s “Laughing in the Jungle,” among the great early studies of the city. “From an airplane,” Mayo writes, “Los Angeles today resembles half a hundred Middle-Western-Egyptian-English-Spanish communities, repainted and sprinkled about. Its population is about 1,400,000. It is, and has been for ten years, the largest city in America in area, and people often wonder why. The answer is Water.” As Michael Hiltzik observes, “Mayo’s acerbic book about the city presaged and inspired ‘City of Quartz.’” — DLU

Your ultimate L.A. Bookhelf is here — a guide to the 110 essential L.A. books, plus essays, supporting quotes and a ranked list of the best of the best.

April 13, 2023

Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams, 1946

McWilliams’ masterpiece blends history, social commentary and political observation to evoke Southern California in three dimensions, with all its complexity and contradictions. More than three-quarters of a century later, it remains not only relevant but also prescient — about water, land, race, development and the tension between mythology and the realities on the ground. “Still the irreplaceable history,” notes Kenneth Turan. Inspired by Adamic and Mayo and a precursor to the work of every Los Angeles writer who came after, this is an essential text. — DLU

'The Doors of Perception,' by Aldous Huxley
(Harper Perennial)


The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, 1954

Huxley may have taken the title of his inquiry into the spiritual and psychological effects of mescaline from William Blake (“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”), but the book itself is short and pointed, an account of the author’s first experience with the drug. Huxley, as always, is a skilled essayist, and he makes some stunning leaps, including his recognition that the utility of psychedelics resides less in derangement than in the way they may return us to the world of being, provoking us to feel and see. — DLU

A Guide to Architecture in Southern California by David Gebhard and Robert Winter, 1965 edition

Back when L.A. history was a joke and not a major, Winter and Gebhard wore out several sets of whitewalls researching their immortal guide. Through six editions now, their clear, planed prose has proved an essential reference for Angelenos in search of all the treasures that bejewel L.A.’s rumpled topography. Architecture critic Greg Goldin especially loves 1965’s original “pocket-sized paperback, filled with hand-drawn maps.” At Occidental College, Winter wound up mentoring a generation of indispensable Los Angelists. — DK

"Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies" by Reyner Banham
(University of California Press)


Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, 1971

Banham’s revolutionary study has aged both well and badly; his sense of the liberatory aspect of the freeways, for instance, now seems both sentimental and benighted. Still, his vision is unparalleled, and he remains among the first observers of Los Angeles to take it on its own specific terms. “A city 70 miles square but rarely 70 years deep,” he writes, but this is less dismissive than a statement of its possibility. And his description of L.A.’s flats as “the plains of id” is one of the best formulations ever written about this city and how it works. — DLU

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"City of Quartz" by Mike Davis

City of Quartz By Mike Davis, 1990

Getting writers to reach consensus is a notoriously tricky proposition. Our 95 survey respondents offered a vast array of books, made wildly counterintuitive arguments and sometimes disputed the entire premise of rankings and genre distinctions. But one thing they agreed on — or more than a third of them — was that “City of Quartz,” Mike Davis’ magisterial, obstinate, rigorous and highly entertaining survey of Los Angeles’ self-identity and power structure, belongs in any pantheon worth preserving. Here’s what some of them had to say about the monumental work and about Davis, who died last year, leaving a legacy that will last as long as the city itself. — BK

  • “It’s such a quietly inventive and morally serious book. I read it before I moved here, and it completely shifted my experience about how best to live in Los Angeles — and what to think about while I’m living here.” — Tom Bissell
  • “A fantastic social history of Los Angeles, detailing the ambition, greed, displacement and corruption that attended the city’s growth.” — Laila Lalami
  • “A vivisection of a city, down to the very bones” — Jordan Harper
  • “Extremely informative, brilliant and written with brio and great style.” — Roberto Lovato
  • “It taught me to move the furniture and look behind it, into the nooks and crannies.” — Lynell George
  • “Really, it’s a zinger.” — Sesshu Foster
  • “It blew the lid off Southern California Studies and much more.” — Bill Deverell
  • “It gave me a lens through which to assess a city I only thought I knew.” — Paula L. Woods
  • “A utopian and dystopian continuation of the Nathanael West perspective into the future.” — William Archila
  • “Just each time you open it, it explodes all preconceptions or stereotypes about what L.A. really, really is.” — Daniel Hernandez
  • “Everyone is going to list this book, so I’m not going to try to write anything about an obvious classic.” — Edan Lepucki
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Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s by Kevin Starr, 1990

Starr marshals facts and stories with the administrative genius of a gifted field general. His work is ebullient, nuanced, interdisciplinary history of the grandest kind. He’s a born storyteller too, mining a rich seam of anecdotal coal to animate complex, enigmatic figures. Of the eight books in his immortal “Americans and the California Dream” series, this is the only one focused almost exclusively on the Southland, mostly L.A. in the 1920s. A chapter on the “Zeitlin circle,” around Jake Zeitlin’s bookstore, reads like a dozen great L.A. biographies commingling around the same bungalow court. — DK

With ‘City of Quartz’ and other influential works, Mike Davis shaped generations of thinking about Los Angeles and its origins.

Oct. 25, 2022

The History of Forgetting by Norman M. Klein, 1997

Operating in the contrarian tradition of Adamic, McWilliams and Davis, Klein looks through the lens of memory at a place that grew up so quickly it can sometimes seem to exist in an everlasting present tense. Despite this, traces linger; we just need to know where to look. “I am not implying,” he writes, “that L.A.’s neighborhoods have no public record at all; quite the contrary. … However, these cannot compete with hundreds of movie melodramas where downtown is a backdrop. Indeed, Los Angeles remains the most photographed and least remembered city in the world.” — DLU

'The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins' by Brenda Stevenson
(Oxford University Press)


The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins by Brenda E. Stevenson, 2013

A poor Black teenage girl is shot by a middle-class Korean storekeeper; a wealthy judge rejects a prison sentence for manslaughter. Months later, a city erupts in mass violence, with Koreans a major target. These are the bare bones of the UCLA historian’s account of the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins. Her accomplishment is to weave together the family histories of all three players in a way that shows systemic injustice is all in the details. Poet Courtney Faye Taylor, author of “Concentrate,” says the book “ushered me into an understanding of Latasha’s legacy — its undeniable beauty, unjust difficulty, and its impact on fights for humanity in Los Angeles.” — BK

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, 2015

In late 2006, Leovy, then an L.A. Times reporter, started a blog called the Homicide Report with the goal of cataloging every murder in Los Angeles County. The idea was to highlight how few killings got press coverage. With “Ghettoside,” she goes the other way, digging deep into a single murder with astonishing results. Her skill at moving from the particular to the universal allows her to draw complicated conclusions about the LAPD and young men of color. “It made me understand policing and crime in this city in a way I never had before,” Bissell reflects. “It also provides a heartbreaking portrait of South Los Angeles.” — DLU

Author and Ultimate Bookshelf contributing editor David Kipen digs for treasure in a bibliography of L.A. fiction — and celebrates the “ghost novels.”

April 11, 2023

Sidewalking by David L. Ulin, 2015


Since arriving from the East more than 30 years ago, Ulin has become a devoted and truthful voice on L.A. — self-consciously a non-native, no booster but a cautious optimist. His ambivalent survey of a city in transition begins with his defiant walking habit but quickly zooms both out and inward, like L.A. itself. From Bunker Hill to Watts to Miracle Mile to the Grove, Ulin examines promises of pedestrian renewal (some already broken today) but lands where all of us do: in a place we are redefining for our own use, whether we know it or not. — BK

"City of Inmates" by Kelly Lytle Hernandez
(UNC Press)

City of Inmates by Kelly Lytle Hernández, 2017

In this groundbreaking history of the city and the people it has put behind bars, Hernández “explains the history and implications of L.A.’s dubious distinction as the carceral capital of the country,” writes Miriam Pawel. Beginning with the indigenous Tongva-Gabrielino Tribe, on through poor whites, Chinese and Mexican immigrants and Black Angelenos, Hernández shows how those in power sought to divide and conquer the city. In 2019, Hernández earned a MacArthur fellowship for “challenging long-held beliefs about the origins, ideology, and evolution of incarceration and immigrant detention practices in the United States.” — CK

The Echo Park-raised author and professor is helping us relearn how race was constructed in the U.S. — and how communities thrive in L.A.

Nov. 4, 2022

A Place at the Nayarit by Natalia Molina, 2022


The populist scholar explores the social history of the Nayarit, a neighborhood restaurant in Echo Park that offered Mexican immigrants a vital space to “reclaim dignity, create social cohesion and foster mutual care.” For the author, it’s personal: The restaurant was established by the grandmother for whom she is named. Pawel describes it as “an affectionate exploration of an important, little-told piece of the city’s history.” It also serves as a stand-in for all of the immigrant spaces across L.A. that knit together communities — places now among the most vulnerable to gentrification. — CAM