100 books like Imperial San Francisco

By Gray Brechin,

Here are 100 books that Imperial San Francisco fans have personally recommended if you like Imperial San Francisco. Shepherd is a community of 10,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Book cover of Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Author Of Moon: Northern California

From my list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty.

Who am I?

My early memories of San Francisco in the late 1970s are anything but glamorous. We lived in a crummy apartment down the street from the People’s Temple, and my preschool, in the always gray Sunset, served carob, not chocolate. Despite decamping for the greener pastures and white sands of Carmel-By-The-Sea, I was forever hooked by the gritty magic of San Francisco. I eventually returned to the city’s foggy Richmond District, where now I ruminate on past adventures, plot new ones, and write about the place I love. I'm the author of Moon Napa Sonoma, Moon California, and Moon Northern California, and my work has appeared in 7x7, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Alaska Magazine

Elizabeth's book list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Why did Elizabeth love this book?

The myths of San Francisco loom large in our cultural imagination, but as David Talbot writes in Season of the Witch, the truth is far more interesting, disturbing, grotesque, and beautiful than even the most cinematic retelling. Between 1967-1983, the city was the epicenter of several countercultures, and home to multiple serial killers, political assassinations, bombing attempts, kidnappings, drug and viral epidemics; all of which unfold in heart-stopping quick succession. You’ll watch situations shift from exuberant to deadly in a matter of years, months, or weeks. You’ll also see how small the city really is; familiar names popping up in seemingly unrelated places; events linked by surprising characters. Talbot’s one point of levity is the carnivalesque sideshow of Anton LaVey and his Church of Satan. That tells you something.

By David Talbot,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Season of the Witch as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The critically acclaimed, San Francisco Chronicle bestseller—a gripping story of the strife and tragedy that led to San Francisco’s ultimate rebirth and triumph.

Salon founder David Talbot chronicles the cultural history of San Francisco and from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when figures such as Harvey Milk, Janis Joplin, Jim Jones, and Bill Walsh helped usher from backwater city to thriving metropolis.


Book cover of The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

Noel Keough Author Of Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City

From my list on myth demonstrating why sustainability matters.

Who am I?

Injustice has always motivated my research and activism. I have always been fascinated by nature and by the complexity of cities. For 25 years I have pursued these passions through the lens of sustainability. In 1996, I co-founded the not-for-profit Sustainable Calgary Society. My extensive work and travel in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have given me a healthy skepticism of the West’s dominant cultural myths of superiority and benevolence and a keen awareness of the injustice of the global economic order. My book selections shed light on these myths and suggest alternative stories of where we come from, who we are, and who we might become. 

Noel's book list on myth demonstrating why sustainability matters

Noel Keough Why did Noel love this book?

This book is important at a time when cities are too often presented unproblematically as the solution to global crises like the climate emergency. Mumford gives a broad historical sweep of cities from their very beginnings and a non-sentimental examination of the prospects of this now-dominant form of human settlement. The book was an instant classic and remains so—often referenced but unfortunately less often read. Mumford went out of favour in the 1970s, in my opinion, in part because his is a critical examination of the role of cities, not a hagiography. Mumford clearly loves the city at its best as ‘a magnifier of all the dimensions of life,’ but he does not shrink from examining cities’ amplification and consolidation of political and economic power, often to humanity’s detriment.

By Lewis Mumford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The City in History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD. A definitive classic, Lewis Mumford's massive historical study brings together a wide array of evidence — from the earliest group habitats to medieval towns to the modern centers of commerce — to show how the urban form has changed throughout human civilization.
Mumford explores the factors that made Greek cities uniques and offers a controversial view of the Roman city concept. He explains how the role of monasticism influenced Christian towns and how mercanitile capitalism shapes the modern city today.
The City in History remains a powerfully influential work, one that has shaped the…


Book cover of Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area

Chris Carlsson Author Of Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

From my list on how San Francisco turned out like it did.

Who am I?

I’ve lived in San Francisco since I was 20 in 1978. I helped launch Processed World in 1981, Critical Mass in 1992, and Shaping San Francisco in 1998. I’ve been co-directing and co-curating the archive at foundsf.org since 2009, and have been fully immersed for years in gathering and presenting local history online, on bike and walking tours, during Public Talks, and most recently on Bay Cruises. I have published three books of my own and edited or co-edited seven additional volumes, much of which covers local history. The more I’ve learned the more I’ve realized how little I know!

Chris' book list on how San Francisco turned out like it did

Chris Carlsson Why did Chris love this book?

Debunking the Horatio Alger promotional blather of self-flattering tech moguls, the real Bay Area comes into view, based on nurses and teachers, drivers and clerks, homeless and the desperate. Real estate bubbles have given way to tech bubbles which have given way to housing bubbles and now have given way to a chimerical prosperity that is as fragile as any of the prior ones. Dick Walker pierces the veils of capitalist self-promotion to reveal the bleak consequences of the “technology booms” that have repeatedly crashed over the San Francisco Bay Area. Whether unpacking the real causes of our ongoing housing crisis or detailing the extensive ecological havoc inflicted on our area, this is a recent, definitive, fact-based analysis of it all.

By Richard A. Walker,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pictures of a Gone City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The San Francisco Bay Area is currently the jewel in the crown of capitalism—the tech capital of the world and a gusher of wealth from the Silicon Gold Rush. It has been generating jobs, spawning new innovation, and spreading ideas that are changing lives everywhere. It boasts of being the Left Coast, the Greenest City, and the best place for workers in the USA. So what could be wrong? It may seem that the Bay Area has the best of it in Trump’s America, but there is a dark side of success: overheated bubbles and spectacular crashes; exploding inequality and…


Book cover of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

Sarah Deutsch Author Of Making a Modern U.S. West: The Contested Terrain of a Region and Its Borders, 1898-1940

From my list on reimagining our mythic American West and its cast.

Who am I?

At some point I decided that if I was going to teach US history, I better have a good sense of what the place looked like. So I drove across the country—and then back again—and then again, and then once more, each time at a different latitude. I drove through North Dakota and South Dakota, Montana and Idaho, Nebraska and Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, up and down California, Oregon and Washington, and on and on. I got addicted to seeing the landscape in all its amazing variety and vastness, and seeing the landscape made the histories come alive. 

Sarah's book list on reimagining our mythic American West and its cast

Sarah Deutsch Why did Sarah love this book?

I remember driving across a barren southwestern landscape and suddenly, in the distance, miles away, seeing a train snake across the desert. Trains are sort of magical to me. They change the relation of space and time. And they create and destroy fortunes. Richard White lays bare the era of massive railroad building, financial shenanigans, and the players at all levels. With his signature humor, he reveals the absurdity behind the mythology of the railroad barons and how the West got built.

By Richard White,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Railroaded as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This original, deeply researched history shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.


Book cover of Our Better Nature: Environment and the Making of San Francisco

Chris Carlsson Author Of Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes and Radical Histories

From my list on how San Francisco turned out like it did.

Who am I?

I’ve lived in San Francisco since I was 20 in 1978. I helped launch Processed World in 1981, Critical Mass in 1992, and Shaping San Francisco in 1998. I’ve been co-directing and co-curating the archive at foundsf.org since 2009, and have been fully immersed for years in gathering and presenting local history online, on bike and walking tours, during Public Talks, and most recently on Bay Cruises. I have published three books of my own and edited or co-edited seven additional volumes, much of which covers local history. The more I’ve learned the more I’ve realized how little I know!

Chris' book list on how San Francisco turned out like it did

Chris Carlsson Why did Chris love this book?

Philip Dreyfus has written a fantastic one-stop ecological history of San Francisco that properly puts the city’s evolution into the natural systems on which it was built. Too many histories overlook the basic questions of water, topography, and climate and how human activity, that is work, has altered those over time. Dreyfus starts with an eloquent description of pre-contact life on the windy, foggy, sand-dune-covered peninsula, and methodically takes us through the sequences of urbanization, including the struggle over green spaces and parklands, water provision, and ultimately the surrounding bay itself. Few cities have benefited as much as San Francisco from the activism of previous generations that in our case, saved the bay, blocked freeway construction, and halted nuclear power.

By Philip J. Dreyfus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Our Better Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Few cities are so dramatically identified with their environment as San Francisco - the landscape of hills, the expansive bay, the engulfing fog, and even the deadly fault line shifting below. Yet most residents think of the city itself as separate from the natural environment on which it depends. In Our Better Nature, Philip J. Dreyfus recounts the history of San Francisco from Indian village to world-class metropolis, focusing on the interactions between the city and the land and on the generations of people who have transformed them both. Dreyfus examines the ways that San Franciscans remade the landscape to…


Book cover of Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Author Of Moon: Northern California

From my list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty.

Who am I?

My early memories of San Francisco in the late 1970s are anything but glamorous. We lived in a crummy apartment down the street from the People’s Temple, and my preschool, in the always gray Sunset, served carob, not chocolate. Despite decamping for the greener pastures and white sands of Carmel-By-The-Sea, I was forever hooked by the gritty magic of San Francisco. I eventually returned to the city’s foggy Richmond District, where now I ruminate on past adventures, plot new ones, and write about the place I love. I'm the author of Moon Napa Sonoma, Moon California, and Moon Northern California, and my work has appeared in 7x7, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Alaska Magazine

Elizabeth's book list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Why did Elizabeth love this book?

Cool Gray City of Love is a portrait, in the most classical sense, of San Francisco, and Kamiya is the journeyman traveling the cityscape to capture his subject’s soul. Each chapter centers on a point on San Francisco’s vast landscape, which blossoms into a tiny universe of place and history at Kamiya’s hand. He begins at the Farallon Islands, then jumps to The Tenderloin, then to Alcatraz, followed by Glen Canyon. While the journey can seem as incongruous as Bullitt’s race through San Francisco, it is as equally compelling, entertaining, and stunning. You’ll find yourself pulled along, promising to put the book down at the end of each chapter but unable to, falling in love with the city as you go. 

By Gary Kamiya,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Cool Gray City of Love as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"A kaleidoscopic homage both personal and historical . . . Kamiya’s symphony of San Francisco is a grand pleasure." ―New York Times Book Review

The bestselling love letter to one of the world's great cities, San Francisco, by a life-long Bay Area resident and co-founder of Salon.

Cool, Gray City of Love brings together an exuberant combination of personal history, deeply researched history, in-depth reporting, and lyrical prose to create an unparalleled portrait of San Francisco. Each of its 49 chapters explores a specific site or intersection in the city, from the mighty Golden Gate Bridge to the raunchy Tenderloin…


Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Craig Nelson Author Of V Is for Victory: Franklin Roosevelt's American Revolution and the Triumph of World War II

From my list on history that will wake you up.

Who am I?

I spent twenty years as a book publishing executive learning how the trade works before launching myself as a full-time author wanting to make the world a better place. My books use state-of-the-art scholarship for history you can read on the beach, and focus on ‘hinge’ moments, great turnings of the world, as well as on forgotten and unsung heroes.

Craig's book list on history that will wake you up

Craig Nelson Why did Craig love this book?

What ideas do you have about what the first peoples were like, and how human society developed?

Maybe you’ve even read the popular authors on this topic such as Diamond, Harari, Pinker, Hobbes, and Rousseau. Prepare to have all of your notions and received opinions upended and turned to dust by David Graeber (a man universally acknowledged as a genius) and the book he worked on for the last ten years of his life, which brings revolutionary ideas to 30,000 years of civilization.

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…


Book cover of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War

Noel Keough Author Of Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City

From my list on myth demonstrating why sustainability matters.

Who am I?

Injustice has always motivated my research and activism. I have always been fascinated by nature and by the complexity of cities. For 25 years I have pursued these passions through the lens of sustainability. In 1996, I co-founded the not-for-profit Sustainable Calgary Society. My extensive work and travel in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have given me a healthy skepticism of the West’s dominant cultural myths of superiority and benevolence and a keen awareness of the injustice of the global economic order. My book selections shed light on these myths and suggest alternative stories of where we come from, who we are, and who we might become. 

Noel's book list on myth demonstrating why sustainability matters

Noel Keough Why did Noel love this book?

In these times of Black Lives Matter, emboldened white-supremicists, and with European dominance descendant, Born into Blackness is a revelatory and blunt dose of historical reality. I was not fully aware of the centrality of the slave economy in Europe’s rise to global dominance. Most importantly, I was ignorant of the level of cultural, political, and economic sophistication of the African nations when the Portuguese first explored the west coast of Africa. I had some understanding of the Haitian revolution and its manifestation of the enlightenment ideals, but this book opened my eyes to the historical ripples of the revolution: the Louisiana purchase, ceding much of present-day Southern US from Napoleon’s France; the sale and forced-march of thousands of slaves into the cotton-growing south, fueling an economic take-off that made the US an imperial power.

By Howard W. French,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Born in Blackness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a sweeping narrative that traverses 600 years, one that eloquently weaves precise historical detail with poignant personal reportage, Pulitzer Prize finalist Howard W. French retells the story of medieval and emerging Africa, demonstrating how the economic ascendancy of Europe, the anchoring of democracy in America and the fulfillment of so-called Enlightenment ideals all grew out of Europe's dehumanising engagement with the "darkest" continent.

Born in Blackness dramatically retrieves the lives of major African historical figures whose stories have been repeatedly etiolated and erased over centuries, from unimaginably rich medieval African emperors who traded with Asia; to Kongo sovereigns who…


Book cover of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Author Of Moon: Northern California

From my list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty.

Who am I?

My early memories of San Francisco in the late 1970s are anything but glamorous. We lived in a crummy apartment down the street from the People’s Temple, and my preschool, in the always gray Sunset, served carob, not chocolate. Despite decamping for the greener pastures and white sands of Carmel-By-The-Sea, I was forever hooked by the gritty magic of San Francisco. I eventually returned to the city’s foggy Richmond District, where now I ruminate on past adventures, plot new ones, and write about the place I love. I'm the author of Moon Napa Sonoma, Moon California, and Moon Northern California, and my work has appeared in 7x7, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Alaska Magazine

Elizabeth's book list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Why did Elizabeth love this book?

Rebecca Solnit’s San Francisco is an onion; not one to be peeled back, but one whose paper skins remain overlapping in layered complexity. Reflecting the city’s élan, this odd-sized book is a beautiful compendium of exquisitely illustrated maps, each unique in style and in juxtaposing themes. You’ll open it to find one plotting Bay Area culinary establishments against its Super Fund sites; then flip to a quixotic mapping of murders and Monterey Cypress; then to another revealing the lost world of South of Market or the Third Street corridor from 4000 B.C.E. to 2001. Each map has a corresponding essay, many written by writers other than Solnit, adding to the vibrancy of voices in this masterwork of a diverse and complex place. 

By Rebecca Solnit,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Infinite City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What makes a place? "Infinite City", Rebecca Solnit's brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, searches out the answer by examining the many layers of meaning in one place, the San Francisco Bay Area. Aided by artists, writers, cartographers, and twenty-two gorgeous color maps, each of which illuminates the city and its surroundings as experienced by different inhabitants, Solnit takes us on a tour that will forever change the way we think about place. She explores the area thematically - connecting, for example, Eadweard Muybridge's foundation of motion-picture technology with Alfred Hitchcock's filming of "Vertigo". Across an urban grid of just…


Book cover of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Author Of Moon: Northern California

From my list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty.

Who am I?

My early memories of San Francisco in the late 1970s are anything but glamorous. We lived in a crummy apartment down the street from the People’s Temple, and my preschool, in the always gray Sunset, served carob, not chocolate. Despite decamping for the greener pastures and white sands of Carmel-By-The-Sea, I was forever hooked by the gritty magic of San Francisco. I eventually returned to the city’s foggy Richmond District, where now I ruminate on past adventures, plot new ones, and write about the place I love. I'm the author of Moon Napa Sonoma, Moon California, and Moon Northern California, and my work has appeared in 7x7, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Alaska Magazine

Elizabeth's book list on San Francisco’s idealism, power, grit, and beauty

Elizabeth Linhart Veneman Why did Elizabeth love this book?

Dive down San Francisco’s counterculture rabbit hole with Joel Selvin, the Bay Area’s best rock journalist. Altamont chronicles the rise and fall of the infamous Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont raceway in the Bay Area’s eastern hills, which notoriously end with the murder of concertgoer Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels. Selvin’s unvarnished coverage goes deep into the world of the 1960s rock scene where innocence and ugliness, odd allegiances, and creative force make a unique cultural moment in the Bay Area. You’ll also get to know some big names in rock, and witness the counterculture as it gets distorted and its innocence lost, as the money gets better and the drugs stronger. You’ll never listen to the Stones or the Dead the same way again.

By Joel Selvin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Altamont as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones' infamous Altamont concert, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s. In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock-the day that shattered the Sixties' promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in land use, environmental issues, and San Francisco?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about land use, environmental issues, and San Francisco.

Land Use Explore 10 books about land use
Environmental Issues Explore 44 books about environmental issues
San Francisco Explore 190 books about San Francisco