In thinking about what it takes to become more informed about San Diego — its history, its people, its land, its essential nature, etc., — I came across this passage in a roundtable discussion of Under the Perfect Sun. It’s by one of the book’s authors, Jim Miller, who wrote that one of the things that would help improve discussions about San Diego would be to encourage

One of the local universities and/or a nonprofit to fund the publication and distribution of books on San Diego. Without that we will forever be wedded to convincing editors outside the city to care (not an easy task), and/or be stuck looking to private sources for funding that may be inclined to continue producing nothing more than brag books to sell to tourists.

Such a publishing company would indeed be very welcomed but my request for books that could help a newcomer understand San Diego was answered with such gusto that it has already left me with a long reading list, which I post below. It contains only the recommended non-fiction; I’ll follow up with a fiction list later.

Some of these books were discussed on KPBS’s These Days this week.

Where I haven’t read enough of a book to form my own opinions and understanding, I’ve included a synthesis of what I learned from correspondents, reviews, mentions elsewhere in the media, the books’ promotional websites or materials, and from browsing the freely available pages or extracts on Google Books and Amazon.

Nearly all of these can be found in the San Diego’s libraries or in bookstores such as The Grove in South Park, Warwick’s in La Jolla, The Book Works in Del Mar, and Mysterious Galaxy in Kearny Mesa.

Thanks to everyone for their recommendations: Janie Anderson, David Bainbridge, Teri Brewer, Linda Canada, Laurel Corona, Rick Crawford, Sean Crotty, Jeffrey Davis, Whitney Edwards, Pat Finn, Beverly Fisher, Donna Frye, Tammy Greenwood, Bill Harris, Ruth Hayward, Michael Jenkins, Welton Jones, Charlotte Kaufman, Wendy Maruyama, Bob Stein and Charlotte Thompson.


Land and Water

Rise and Fall of San Diego: 150 Million Years of History Recorded in Sedimentary Rocks (1999), by Patrick L. Abbott, covers the geological prehistory of the San Diego area. Amazon preview.

Cuyamacas: The Story of San Diego’s High Country (2008), by Leland Fetzer, a former SDSU professor. A history of the Cuyamaca mountains, including the geology, the trails, the politics, and the people. Amazon preview.

Metropolitan San Diego: How Geography and Lifestyle Shape a New Urban Environment (2004) by geographer Larry Ford. He looks at the distinct cultural pockets of San Diego and their relationship to the land. Amazon preview.

The revised edition of Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, by Marc Reisner, isn’t exclusively about San Diego, but its frank talk about water use, rights and consumption, and the irrigation lobby, brings an amazing amount of data and opinion to support the point that, as he writes in the afterword, “California has a shortage of water because it has a surfeit of cows — it’s really almost as simple as that.” Amazon preview, Google Books preview.

The Romance of Balboa Park, by Florence Christman. 1915-1945. Her obituary in 1992 describes the book as tracing “the history of the park from its naming to the planting of its trees and how explosives were needed to loosen the plow-breaking hardpan soil.”

Native Americans

Strangers in a Stolen Land, by Richard Carrico, an academic specialist in American Indian studies. He starts the 2008 edition with a light sketch of the earliest history of people in the region, and then follows with a more detailed narrative of the Native Americans who inhabited what is now San Diego County from the 1850s through 1930s. It’s written at an undergraduate level and doesn’t shirk from detailing the horrors and injustices. A review in Indian Country Today gives a decent survey of the work. Amazon preview. Carrico also authored a book on San Diego’s ghosts.

For a more personal take, Delfina Cuero: Her Autobiography — An Account of Her Last Years and Her Ethnobotanic Contributions, told with the help of Florence Shipek, is the true story of Kumeyaay woman born about 1900.

Broad History

History of San Diego, by Richard F. Pourade, a former editor for the San Diego Union, is a seven-volume set covering the years 1492 through 1970. The entire set is available in full-text form at no cost on the website of the San Diego History Center. The online version has a few formatting issues and no pictures, and it is written rather drily as news-like reportage with little interpretation, but it’s an astonishing amount of background one is unlikely to find without going through decades of newspaper microfilm. A related chronology shows the high points of San Diego’s history.

San Diego: An Illustrated History (1981), by Ray Brandes, an archeologist, historian, and at one time a professor and dean at USD. Covers 9000 BC through the 1940s. A review in the Journal of San Diego History calls it “an impressive coffee-table book” and “a pictorial history and short overview of San Diego from pre-historic time to the present.”

Arcadia Publishing has a number of picture-rich historical books about San Diego, including Japanese Americans in San Diego, which is available in preview on Google Books.


San Diego Confidential: A Candidate’s Odyssey (1998), by Peter Navarro, describes Navarro’s trips through San Diego politics as a regular losing candidate. It’s a frank, partisan, loose work, loaded with wisecracks. A scan of the entire book is available for free download on his website.

Anatomy of a Failure: Planning and Politics in San Diego’s North City, 1970-1995 is a doctoral thesis by Norma Damashek. It seems to be available only at the SDSU library.

Crime and Cops

Captain Money and The Golden Girl: The J. David Affair by Donald Bauder, who now writes for the Reader, was first published in 1985. It gives the inside story of a multi-year Ponzi scheme in San Diego executed by J. David “Jerry” Dominelli and vigorous socialite Nancy Hoover. The scandal led to convictions and imprisonment for some, and new careers in media and politics for others who are still public figures. Bauder has an engrossing version of the story at the Reader and there’s a review of the book at the Journal of San Diego History.

Poisoned Love, by Caitlin Rother, tells the tale of Kristin Rossum, a toxicologist at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office who in 2000 poisoned her husband, Greg de Villers. It’s the tale that carries the book, which is otherwise written in a tedious tick-tock fashion padded with unnecessary detail. Amazon preview.

Lines and Shadows (1984), by Joseph Wambaugh, is a novelized non-fiction account of the Border Crime Task Force and San Diego-area law enforcement. Amazon preview.


Smile Southern California, You’re the Center of the Universe: The Economy and People of a Global Region (2009), by James Flanigan, a former business columnist at the LA Times. The book largely focuses on Los Angeles but San Diego is not neglected. Google preview, Amazon preview.

San Diego: An Introduction to the Region (1976), is an academic collection of papers edited by Philip R. Pryde, a professor emeritus of geography at SDSU. A review in the Journal of San Diego History describes it as “obviously prepared for students in classes in the history and geography of San Diego,” but notes that “it is a book that many other individuals will buy and peruse.”

Satan’s Playground: Mobsters And Movie Stars At America’s Greatest Gaming Resort (2010), by Paul Vanderwood, is about gambling in Tijuana during the 1920s, especially at Agua Caliente, a huge resort opened during Prohibition. Randy Dotinga interviewed Vanderwood in August. Google Books preview.

I’m Grant Barrett, engagement editor for Drop me a line at, call me at (619) 550-5666, and follow me on Twitter @grantbarrett.

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