9 Great Nonfiction Reads About Los Angeles, by Angelenos

Photo by Dan Dumitriu/Unsplash

Los Angeles is an elusive, mysterious place, embodying wildly variant interests, from farming to filmmaking, acting to architecture, the occult to evangelism. Everyone’s got some sort of take on the city, but it’s only the locals who’ve spent time trying to understand the many forces that have shaped this town who seem to get it right.

Here we present our recommendations for beach- and poolside-friendly books written about Los Angeles, by Angelenos. Just like the city itself, we’ve got a tome for everyone, whether you’re looking for something more literary, culturally critical, lightly curious, historically fascinating, downright conspiratorial, or a gossip-fueled romp through the early days of Hollywood. It’s all page-turning juicy reads ahead.

books about los angeles
Photo courtesy of L.A. Man: Profiles From a Big City and a Small World/Facebook

L.A. Man: Profiles From a Big City and a Small World, by Joe Donnelly
Longtime L.A. journalist and storyteller Donnelly is indelibly connected to the existential pulse of Southern California, marrying the romantic vision of beaches and glamour that’s exported to the rest of the world with the real, human grit underneath. That strength is on full display in this collection of run-ins with celebrities, cultural pioneers, and even a wolf, with Donnelly humanizing his subjects even as he expands their mythos. Who says Twitter is the best way to know your celebs in 2019?

books about los angeles
Photo courtesy of Gary Krist/Facebook

The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angelesby Gary Krist
Krist boils his engrossing account of the unlikely formation of Los Angeles down to three near-folkloric figures: William Mulholland, father of the city’s vital water infrastructure; D.W. Griffith, polarizing pioneer of high cinema; and Aimee Semple McPherson, celebrity evangelist who put L.A. on the spiritual map. The truth of the city’s rise is a lot more complex, of course, but these three human stories stand as a microcosm of the ambition, unwavering faith, and not-insignificant dose of insanity the City of Angels was founded upon.

books about los angeles
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This Is (Not) L.A.: An Insider’s Take on the Real Los Angeles, by Jen Bilik and Kate Sullivan
The authors—a novelty gift entrepreneur and a TV show host—give us a breezy read with this one, written blurb-style and jam-packed with graphic illustrations and factoids. From Angelyne to the old zoo in Griffith Park, here’s where to get an insider’s primer on everything Los Angeles—and there’s even plenty for longtime locals to learn, as well.

books about los angeles
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City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angelesby Mike Davis
A must-read for every Angeleno or anyone aspiring to be, City of Quartz is basically a lyrical, narrative handbook to L.A.’s myriad cultural and sociopolitical forces over the past 40 years. Brimming with fascinating but often uncomfortable observations about this shimmering city, the book elicits insights on city politics and culture that are relevant today.

books about los angeles
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Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon, by David McGowan
You don’t have to dig too deep to find that Los Angeles is long on conspiracy. From occult secret societies to Hollywood power networks, from the drug- and sex-fueled party scenes to experimental communes, and even the food and wellness industry. All of the above combine in this book, along with hallucinogen experimentation and the military industrial complex, in one very wild read about covert operations held in Laurel Canyon. Allegedly, according to social critic McGowan, such classic rock greats as the Doors, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, and more acted as agents of the state, willingly or not, to craft a counterculture that was actually an intelligence coup.

books about los angeles
Still courtesy of USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Youtube

Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and Americaby Steven J. Ross
“A time when hate groups had moved from the margins to the mainstream,” reads the publisher’s description of this 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist. It is referring to Nazism in the 1930s and ’40s, but how the same words hold true today makes this chilling, unbelievable tale—about very real Nazi plots to murder Hollywood Jews and commandeer the American movie industry from the inside, and the brilliant amateur spies who foiled them—grimly relevant.

books about los angeles
Jayne Mansfield / Photo courtesy of Hollywood Babylon/Facebook

Hollywood Babylon: The Legendary Underground Classic of Hollywood’s Darkest and Best Kept Secretsby Kenneth Anger
Difficult to categorize, Hollywood Babylon was banned for a decade pretty much immediately after it was published. Salaciously exposing Hollywood scandals real and imaginary, with details mined from questionable sources, the book is full of graphic images and details of sex and violence. From the silent era through the 1960s, no one was spared or revered, with most of it debunked as malicious falsehoods. Today, it’s still the stuff of urban legend, and in a way, embodies the spirit of Los Angeles: It’s very hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. So yes, this is pure trash, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want to read by the pool.

books about los angeles
Photo courtesy of Artbook at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles/Facebook

Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018, edited by David Kipen
Los Angeles belongs to the whole world—we do ship out our culture to all corners of the globe, after all. That’s why this compendium of letters, journal entries, and stray thoughts about L.A. draws not just from locals but from anyone the City of Angels has touched worldwide. Dating as far back as 16th-century explorers and as recent as 2018 tweets, Dear Los Angeles paints a vivid, diverse picture of a vivid, diverse place.

books about los angeles
Photo courtesy of Joan Didion/Facebook

Where I Was From, by Joan Didion
All right, you caught us. This one isn’t technically entirely about Los Angeles. It’s about all of California, with lots of verbiage dedicated to the City of Angels, and Didion is a transplant. Still, her words left such a mark on this city that she actually helped shape it. So we’re counting this one, too. Recontextualizing the state through the water and land that literally formed it, and how the two were harnessed to concoct a paradise, Didion examines our obsession with reverie as opposed to the brutal realities of nature, combining historical narrative, personal essay, and reportage in a way only she can.