Musicians, writers, poets and filmmakers — from N.W.A to Randy Newman — have been prolific in their efforts to capture the essence of L.A. Beyond that, there are so many literary works that have nothing to do with L.A. yet seem to capture the experience of living here. Here we've collected literary passages that perfectly define the L.A. experience — from the go-to L.A. books that automatically come to mind, to some of the less obvious picks.
1. “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire qualify of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Didion is widely known for being an L.A. writer, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem is her first collection of nonfiction essays, which details a lot of her California experiences in the 1960s. She discusses growing up in California, and doesn’t just let her commentary stay in L.A. but brings the conversation to Death Valley and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. While Didion's books always make L.A.-book lists, it’s rare that Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the one to make the list, which is surprising.
2. “It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.”
“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams ….”
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
When I think of Heart of Darkness, I mostly think of a very trying time in my life when I actually had to read Heart of Darkness in order to pass an 11th-grade English class. It’s not really a memory I look back on fondly. For those of you who weren’t forced to read it (or for those who read it voluntarily and gave up four pages in), Heart of Darkness takes you on Marlow’s journey up the Congo River. It’s filled with dark (actually, straight-up grim) imagery around imperialism, slavery and the ivory trade in Africa. However, it’s also a story of pursuit and determination, which I think mirrors a lot of the mentality in L.A. These passages really capture how L.A. can sweep you up, but also suck you in.
3. “That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”
—Charles Bukowski, Women
Bukowski is rumored to have spent a lot of time hanging out at Smogcutter, a Silver Lake bar best known for its karaoke and not-super-friendly service. On any given day, the bar hosts a bunch of straight, bearded white men eagerly waiting to tell you that Bukowski used to drink there.
4. “What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
When Kerouac does talk about L.A., it’s not favorably. In fact, in On the Road, he says, “L.A. is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities,” and then goes on to call it “a jungle.” But it’s not this part of the book that, to me, captures L.A. Instead, it’s this description of driving away, because L.A. is a city that people leave and come back to. It is a place that people escape to, and a place they then get sick of (or maybe just leave in frustration or because of exhaustion), and then return to.
5. “One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out. That was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.”
“Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there's a God in heaven.”
—John Fante, Ask the Dust
Fante's inclusion in this list is practically a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason. Ask the Dust follows Arturo Bandini, a recurring character in Fante’s work, who (you guessed it) is a young man trying to make it as a writer in L.A. It takes place in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, and a footnote that always comes with this book is that it ~influenced Bukowski~. Bukowski actually wrote an introduction to the book, in which he claims Fante was his god, and he says he used to claim that he was Arturo Bandini when he fought with his former live-in girlfriend.
6. “But I realize now that the art of living in the present is not so much controlling time, it’s losing track of time. This is most likely to happen when we surrender to something we love to do: not because it’s a demand, or an emergency, or an inability to do anything else. Seeking out what we love so much that we lose track of time when we’re doing it — that goes beyond Einstein’s theory and puts us into his life. He loved his work so much that he had to be careful while shaving; otherwise, he cut himself when a spontaneous idea struck. That is a hint of the timeless Now.”
—Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty & Seventy
One of the things I first loved (and simultaneously hated) about L.A. is that I lost all concept of time during my first year here. Maybe it really is just me, but when you have seasons, it’s really very easy to keep track of what month it is. When you don’t, the days stream into weeks and into months and because the sun is always out, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between November and May. It’s hard to tell if time is moving more quickly, or slowing down, but like Steinem says, there’s a hint of the timeless. Her quote describes how we lose track of time when we are doing work we actually love. There are so many cities in the United States where work is done for the sake of money, or for the sake of filling time. But in L.A., the tone is that people work for the sake of the work itself, because they actually like it enough.
7. “Beauty is a form of Genius — is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
My personal opinion on this quote is that it’s an LOL. I think this honestly represents the (occasional) superficiality of L.A. too well. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel that has a flippant (and almost detached) tone that captures a small part of L.A. culture.
8. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
—Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is typically classified as autobiographical fiction because the main character is a younger version of Angelou and a representation of young black girls in America. It takes place in the South in the 1930s and '40s, which isn’t particularly similar to the climate of L.A. in 2016. Nonetheless, because Angelou is a storyteller, her writing talks about the culture of storytelling, which is a distinctly L.A. notion. Even if you don’t come to L.A. to write, storytelling is part of L.A.’s culture — from our entertainment, to our peers, to the people sitting next to us at coffee shops clacking away on their laptops. Also, there’s another quote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between”) that really captures what it's like to be a screenwriter in L.A.
9. “So then,
royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits,
still eager to leave at once and hurry back
to your own home, your beloved native land?
Good luck to you, even so. Farewell!
But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
you’d stay right here, preside in our house with me
and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,
the one you pine for all your days . . .”
— Homer, The Odyssey
Living in L.A. is an experience that is truly sought after. It is the city that people dream of moving to from a young age, and taking the plunge of moving out is a milestone, even for the people who only stay for three months. It's like how Odysseus seeks out Ithaca even though he's trying to get back to his home and his wife. And once he finally makes it to his destination, there are still more obstacles to overcome. Is this a corny parallel to draw? Yes. Does that make it untrue? No.