Reading L.A.

I find it interesting that books about L.A. tend to be dark.  There’s usually some sort of cataclysmic event or at the very least most likable character ends up destitute or dead.  Day of the Locust?  Dark, gloomy and ends in a riot scene (and if that isn’t enough, the author Nathanael West died in a car crash on the way to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral).  Golden Days?  Starts with a strong female character, ends with a nuclear bomb.  The Tortilla Curtain?  My favorite L.A. novel washes away with a massive flash flood.  Honestly, a reader could think no one gets out of here alive.

Keith and I enjoy learning about our city, so much so that a few years ago, we spent 10 weeks of our date nights attending a History of L.A. course at UCLA.  We learned some of the reasons behind the literary and cultural views of the city.  It was born on a bed of hype.  The sales pitch has variations, but from the beginning L.A. has been sold as an image and, as we all know, images rarely live up to their promise.  It’s almost doomed from the beginning to disappoint.  Knowing our city, rather than just living on the surface of it, has added a lot to our lives.  That’s why I’ve been excited to follow Christopher Hawthorne’s Reading L.A. series on Culture Monster.

Christopher is the architecture critic for the L.A. Times and he’s spending this year reading about Los Angeles.  He’s picked 27 books, all non-fiction with a variety of history, memoir and architecture choices.  There’s even potential that some of them won’t be dismal.  Working through the books chronologically, the first two discussed in January were fairly obscure, I think reading his overview of them is sufficient.  However, my favorite and in my opinion the best history of L.A., Southern California: An Island on the Land by Carey McWilliams, was on tap for February.  If you are only going to read one book about L.A., this is the one.  Hawthorne acknowledged it as the source of future books on the city:

Southern California: An Island on the Land is, if not quite our urtext, then easily the most significant volume ever published on L.A.’s civic and urban character.  What makes the book feel so definitive begins with the way it knits skepticism with consistent, if always clear-eyed, enthusiasm — and in so doing anticipates the whole diverse spectrum of later studies of Los Angeles and its architecture, from the upbeat rhapsodies of Reyner Banham to the bleak-black critique of Mike Davis.

There are a few other books on Hawthorne’s list that I’ve read, most notably City of Quartz by Mike Davis (very dark view of L.A.) and Holy Land by D.J. Waldie (a lovely memoir that I think of every time I travel south on the 405).  I know I can’t keep up with all the books, but February’s post on Five California Architects by Esther McCoy caused me to look for a copy and there are a couple I’m going to try to read with Hawthorne.  GOOD Magazine’s Book Club is taking on Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles:  The Architecture of Four Ecologies in April, I’m going to join in.

Check out the list of books, let me know if your interested in reading any and we can pair up to read together, along with with Christopher Hawthorne.