Paul Yamazaki on His Favorite California Books

The California Book Club panelist lauds Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel for its depiction of the political and cultural unrest of the late 1960s and early ’70s and Chester Himes’s often overlooked If He Hollers Let Him Go as one of the best novels about California.

paul yamazaki, city lights booksellers
City Lights

Paul Yamazaki might laughingly dismiss the label—anyone who knows him cherishes his modesty, good humor, and self-deprecation—but there’s no question that he’s the dean of Bay Area booksellers. This year marks Yamazaki’s 50th anniversary with City Lights Booksellers, where he has been the principal buyer since 1984. For half a century, Yamazaki has been one of the guiding forces of the legendary independent bookstore that was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the late Peter D. Martin. Yamazaki’s talent lies in selecting titles for the store that one might not find elsewhere, everything from superb but little-known translated novels to a wealth of poetry collections that fills a dedicated room on the shop’s second floor.

Yamazaki’s story is worth a book in its own right. He was raised in the sleepy suburbs of Los Angeles, but his life changed dramatically when, at age 21, he was jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. The judge in his case set him free—on the condition that he prove he was able to find work. Thanks to a recommendation from Francis Oka, a poet he knew, Yamazaki came to the attention of Ferlinghetti, a World War II veteran who had become a pacifist. “Lawrence was sympathetic to someone he considered a political prisoner,” Yamazaki recalled in a Zyzzyva interview—and he got the City Lights job. Now Yamazaki is inspiring a younger generation of booksellers. Stephen Sparks, who owns Point Reyes Books with his wife, Molly Parent, conducted that Zyzzyva interview. The first line of Sparks’s piece? “Paul Yamazaki made me want to be a bookseller.

Join the California Book Club and participate in our free online event with Walter Mosley on December 17, 2020, at 5 p.m. Pacific time.


A recipient of the Litquake Barbary Coast Award, Yamazaki has served on the boards of directors of the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, Small Press Distribution, Kearny Street Workshop, and numerous other literary and arts organizations. Alta’s California Book Club is honored to have him as a member of the club’s selection panel. We reached him via email.

What’s your most treasured book about California—or that’s set in the state?
I Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita. Yamashita is one of the most masterful contemporary American authors. I Hotel captures the political and cultural ferment in the late 1960s and early ’70s with political insight and humor. I Hotel sits on my bookshelf next to Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

What are some of the best, if overlooked, books that take place in the Golden State?
If He Hollers Let Him Go, by Chester Himes; Dreams from Bunker Hill, by John Fante; and Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru.

Who are some new California authors you’re most excited about?
R.O. Kwon, Vanessa Hua, C Pam Zhang, Myriam Gurba, Mauro Javier Cárdenas, Jaime Cortez, Syed M. Masood, Elaine Castillo, Namwali Serpell, and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton.

What’s a California story that deserves to be told in a book?
A narrative history of post–World War II Northern California literary circles beginning with Robert Duncan/Madeline Gleason, Kenneth Rexroth, the Poetry Center and American Poetry Archives at San Francisco State University, City Lights, Stanford’s writing workshop (Ken Kesey, Al Young, Robert Stone), the Before Columbus Foundation (Ishmael Reed, Frank Chin, Victor Hernández Cruz, Shawn Wong), the Santa Cruz circle around Nathaniel Mackey/bell hooks, Kearny Street Workshop, Small Press Distribution, and the Language poets. This is an ongoing story that affects reading and writing to this day.

What’s the one California book that people need to read right now?
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873, by Benjamin Madley. As citizens of the state of California, we can not move forward without an understanding of our history. An American Genocide is a fundamental book to begin understanding our history.

Read more about the California Book Club selection panel here.

The next California Book Club event:

devil in a blue dress, walter mosley
Washington Square Press


When: Thursday, December 17, 2020, 5 p.m. Pacific time

Format: John Freeman will lead a free hourlong conversation with Walter Mosely, joined by special guest Edwidge Danticat. The event includes a reading and questions from the audience. Produced by Alta for streaming on Zoom.


John McMurtrie edits for McSweeney’s Publishing and the literary travel magazine Stranger’s Guide.
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