The Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf

A bookshelf full of books and objects.  A black cat rests lethargically on the top shelf.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

In time for the 2023 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, we asked writers with deep ties to the city: What books define L.A.? What poems, essays, mysteries, memoirs, histories, short stories, sci-fi novels and literary works would you press on a new arrival to help them understand the city, learn something new and have a great time?

Ninety-five writers responded to our survey, and we culled their recommendations into 110 titles across eight categories, spanning from the 1880s to last year. Our list incorporates their often fierce and profound arguments; another piece features our favorite comments. And we asked contributors (some of them also on the list) to write essays about the most influential selections. One even argues that there is no Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf. And it’s true: L.A.’s canon is constantly shedding its old skins, just like the city itself.


The lists


L.A.’s writers on the best of the best

Steph Cha on Raymond Chandler

Steph Cha, author of ‘Your House Will Pay,’ explains how Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep,’ her neighbor on the Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf, changed her life.

David Ulin on Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s ‘Play It as It Lays’ is one of the most popular L.A. novels among writers surveyed by The Times. David L. Ulin explains why her fiction matters.

Edan Lepucki on Octavia E. Butler

Edan Lepucki, author of the dystopian novel ‘California,’ explains the power of ‘Parable of the Sower.’

Sesshu Foster on Coleman and Bukowski

Sesshu Foster emerged from a difficult L.A. childhood to become a leading poet. He couldn’t have done it without Wanda Coleman — or Charles Bukowski.

David Kipen on Forgotten Books

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

Gustavo Arellano on Luis J. Rodriguez

What makes Luis J. Rodriguez’s ‘Always Running’ such and enduring, beloved memoir? It’s a personal story that aims to save us all.

Our Favorite Responses on L.A. Books

We asked hundreds of L.A. writers about the most essential books about L.A. Here’s what some of them had to say.


Project editor: Boris Kachka
Contributing editors: Carolyn Kellogg, David Kipen
Contributing writers: David L. Ulin, Gustavo Arellano, Carolina A. Miranda, Iliana Limón Romero
Senior deputy design directors: Jim Cooke, Faith Stafford
Art direction and print design: Judy Pryor
Art direction and illustration: Patrick Hruby
Project manager: Lora Victorio
Copy editors: Alison Dingeldein, Joan Fantazia, Gillian Glover, Lisa Horowitz, R. Marina Levario, Doug Norwood, Jason Sanchez
Photo editors: Jerome Adamstein, Taylor Arthur
Audience Engagement: Vanessa Franko, David Viramontes, Nick Ducassi
Digital production: Jevon Phillips, Christian Orozco, Kelly Corrigan
Deputy editor for Entertainment and Arts: Maane Khatchatourian

The 95 writers who responded to our “Ultimate Bookshelf” survey: Elisa Albert, Lili Anolik, William Archila, Gustavo Arellano, Rosecrans Baldwin, Aimee Bender, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Tom Bissell, Francesca Lia Block, Kashana Cauley, Jessica Ceballos y Campbell, Steph Cha, Melissa Chadburn, Jade Chang, Maya Chen, Kim Cooper, Natashia Deón, Stephanie Danler, Nathan Deuel, Bill Deverell, Boris Dralyuk, María Amparo Escandón, Alex Espinoza, Charles Finch, Sesshu Foster, Ann Friedman, Roxane Gay, Lynell George, Dana Gioia, Tod Goldberg, Greg Goldin, Rachel Howzell Hall, Jordan Harper, Daniel Hernandez, Michael Hiltzik, Maria Hummel, Pico Iyer, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Dana Johnson, Carolyn Kellogg, David Kipen, Norman M. Klein, Rachel Kushner, Laila Lalami, Susan LaTempa, Ken Layne, Edan Lepucki, Jonathan Lethem, Jill Leovy, Attica Locke, Roberto Lovato, Suzanne Lummis, Meredith Maran, Dan Marshall, Lou Mathews, Charles McNulty, Carolina A. Miranda, Patt Morrison, Carol Muske-Dukes, Lisa Napoli, Anthony Ocampo, Daniel A. Olivas, Katie Orphan, Zibby Owens, Steve Padilla, T. Jefferson Parker, Miriam Pawel, Otto Penzler, Gary Phillips, Ivy Pochoda, Pamela Redmond, Kim Stanley Robinson, Howard A. Rodman, Lisa See, Dan Smetanka, Jane Smiley, Mark Haskell Smith, Christopher Soto, Matthew Specktor, Susan Straight, Courtney Faye Taylor, Michelle Tea, Héctor Tobar, Justin Torres, Kenneth Turan, David L. Ulin, Paul Vangelisti, Vickie Vértiz, Laura Warrell, Steve Wasserman, Marc Weingarten, Marianne Wiggins, Ryan Lee Wong, Paula L. Woods, Tom Zoellner