The Golden State of Books

One Year, 12 Books, 5,000 Visions of California

california book club, first anniversary books

Literature of so many kinds and so many genres from so many different types of people—at the highest level—has been coming out of California and from Californians for decades now,” John Freeman, the host of the California Book Club, wrote in an essay for Alta Journal last year. “In fact, if there’s been an American moment in any genre over the past 20 years, it’s had a California component.”

The essay was a prelude to the founding of the California Book Club, an Alta project that has grown into a thriving community of Californians and non-Californians alike, pursuing a greater understanding of the Golden State through the books that are inspired by it. Last Friday marked one year since the California Book Club’s first event, with author C Pam Zhang. Since then, the California Book Club has featured 11 additional brilliant authors, sharing their fiction, poetry, memoirs, and commentary. The CBC started with 1,000 members and has now grown to over 5,000.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Guided by incredible literature, California Book Club members traveled up and down the state this past year. We explored glowing hills with Zhang and solved crimes with Walter Mosley. Rachel Kushner took us into a women’s prison. Nina Revoyr remapped the terrain of Los Angeles. We grew up with Dana Johnson, caught waves with William Finnegan, and traveled to San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake with Rebecca Solnit.

Moreover, the California Book Club members have explored complex themes during our discussions and in the Clubhouse, creating a sense of community at a time of distance and isolation. “What you do makes it possible to stay connected and engaged during this long, long pandemic,” one California Book Club member said after a monthly gathering. The 12 books explored themes of race, gender-based violence, youth, immigration, belonging, mutual aid, and societal restructuring. Many of them dared readers to imagine a better, more just future not just for California, but for the world.

“California is a future-facing place for good and for bad,” said Kushner, the author of the CBC’s May selection, The Mars Room. “It has a lot of utopian promise in it that trickles back down to how life functions here, but it also gives us glimpses of the near brutality for everyone.” Indeed, navigating California’s beauty and brutality, its progress and its failures, has been a consistent theme.

The California Book Club is part of a changing landscape, one that recognizes new authors and old favorites and is dependent on avid readers and enthusiastic bookstores. The past year would not have been possible without the support of the California Book Club’s literary partners, who see the value in stories coming out of the West. “I think that with enough push and enough hard work, the literary landscape and the publishing industry’s landscape is going to change. And we’re going to see sort of a shift in terms of the importance of California,” Myriam Gurba, author of Mean, said at the California Book Club’s April gathering.

Tonight, Maxine Hong Kingston kicks off the second year of the California Book Club as she discusses her masterpiece of California literature, The Woman Warrior. Register here and join us for a conversation with Kingston, James Janko, and Freeman. We hope to see you there and at future CBC events.

To become a member of the California Book Club, join here.•
Jessica Blough is an assistant editor at Alta Journal.
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