What to read about the history of California

IT IS DIFFICULT to wrap your mind around California. The Golden State is larger and more populous than many countries, with an economy to match. It is home to towering mountains, unforgiving desert and seemingly endless coastline. No American state has had a greater impact on modern culture and technology—thanks to Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And, like America, California is not just a place but an idea: a golden land of opportunity at the edge of the continent where generations of miners, migrants, farmers, actors and computer geeks have sought success. It is perhaps because of this idealistic vision that California’s troubles, and those of its superstar cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, can seem especially acute. It is also America’s most liberal state, earning it the admiration of progressives and the ire of conservatives, for whom California has become shorthand for everything wrong in America. No one book can really unpack what California means. But these five, taken together, make for a good start.

California: A History. By Kevin Starr. Modern Library; 416 pages; $20

For a broad overview of California’s story start with Kevin Starr’s one-volume history of the state. The historian and former state librarian somehow manages to cover everything from the Spaniards’ exploratory voyages up the Pacific coast in the 16th century to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial victory in 2003. Naturally, the book won’t answer every question readers may have about the state, but it is an extremely useful jumping-off point, and an introduction to California’s many eras: Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican and, finally, American.

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. By D.J. Waldie. W.W. Norton; 208 pages; $14.95

It is hard to understand Los Angeles, and California more broadly, without considering its suburbs. A post-war construction boom transformed the farmland and fruit groves that once covered Los Angeles County. Lakewood was the west coast’s answer to New York’s Levittown: row after row of tract houses that became suburbs that became sprawl. D.J. Waldie grew up in one such house. His book is a reflection on suburban life and the appearance of order and conformity. “I live where a majority of Americans live,” the book begins. It is “one of the places where suburban stories were first mass-produced.”

Slouching Towards Bethlehem. By Joan Didion. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 256 pages; $18

Several other books by Joan Didion could easily have made this list. She was a daughter of Sacramento, and wrote often about her home state. But it was her unflinching portrait of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood in 1967, when “the centre was not holding”, that catapulted Didion into the pantheon of California writers. “San Francisco was where the social haemorrhaging was showing up,” she wrote, when runaways, protesters and rock ‘n rollers disenchanted with America, with their lives, colonised Golden Gate Park. Other essays in this collection explore the rising rivers of the Sacramento Valley, the middle-class striving of the Inland Empire (where LA’s exurbs meet the desert) and the vagaries of Los Angeles. Didion tried to puzzle out in prose what California meant, and probably came closer than anyone. “California is a place”, she wrote, “in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.”

The Grapes of Wrath. By John Steinbeck. Penguin; 464 pages; $21

More than half of John Steinbeck’s classic book takes place either in Oklahoma or on dusty roads headed west. But California is ever present: first as an idea, even before the Joad family crosses the desert and arrives in Bakersfield’s squalid migrant camps. And then as a disappointing reality, when families can’t find work in the fields and the fruit rots on the trees because small-time farmers can’t pay for labour. Steinbeck manages to capture the devastation that the Dust Bowl wrought on the Great Plains and the promise, and eventual disappointment, that California held for the poor farmers streaming west out of America’s parched middle in the 1930s.

My First Summer in the Sierra. By John Muir. Mariner Books; 336 pages; $21.99

John Muir’s account of his “rambles” through the Sierra Nevada during the summer of 1869 is equal parts diary, poem and field guide. The famed naturalist is ostensibly watching over a flock of sheep, and yet he leaves them at any chance he gets to explore the lakes, peaks and valleys of one of North America’s great mountain ranges. Muir can be tedious when he is rhapsodising about the magnificence of the Yosemite Valley in abstract, almost religious, terms. But he is engaging and funny when he is recounting his adventures, and teaching readers about California’s rich natural environment in the meantime. A grasshopper inspires as much reverence as grizzly bears or giant sequoias. Readers will also see something of California’s long tradition of environmentalism in Muir’s writings. He has only scorn for tourists—but has the presence of mind to realise he is not so different from them.

Also try

We wrote about California’s economic troubles in early 2024, as well as about its strength in innovation: San Francisco still rules the tech world despite its toxic politics. Cities in California have struggled, in particular, with housing the homeless. During the pandemic the state lost population for the first time, but some cities are still thriving. For more on California, listen to two recent podcast episodes about Los Angeles and San Francisco.