I have been developing this list for thirty years. It began when I was teaching about California in adult education programs and was inspired by Southwest Classics and California Classics (both now out of print) by Lawrence Clark Powell, long-time librarian at UCLA.
I immediately set out to acquire, then read, everything on Powell's list. I found that some were hard to find and a few just didn't appeal to me. But it set me to thinking, and researching, and gradually I developed my own list. Several of my adult students immediately set out to read everything on my list (originally 25 books).
The next generation of this list came many years later when I began teaching the geography field class at UC Berkeley. I have always felt that a well written work of fiction can provide insights into landscapes and regional cultures as well as, and sometimes even better than, non-fiction. When I was a student at Berkeley we were always assigned to read one or two works of fiction as part of any regional geography class.
I dusted off the old list, added a few titles and dropped a few, and each year I reviewed it. My field class students were assigned to each read one book from the list, then give a brief oral report on it to the group. Often these reports were given while relaxing in the shade during lunch, or around the campfire after dinner. Most of the students enjoyed what they had read and I like to think they might now be working their way through the other titles on the list.
The list is not strictly literature, in the high-brow sense, many of the works are more about entertainment than edification. Many were bestsellers in their day and some of them played significant roles in the politics and history of California. Several were made into memorable movies. Following Powell's lead I have included poetry and personal history along with fiction.
Many people are surprised when they realize how rich the literature of California really is. Some of the authors I have included were California natives whose life work was intimately entwined with the people and places of the state - John Steinbeck being the leading example. Others merely passed through California and found enough inspiration for one book - Evelyn Waugh for instance.
At one point this list had grown to around a hundred titles, with multiple entries for some authors, and a few books that I had not read. I have decided it is best to limit the main list to one book per author (in exceptional cases two) and omit anything I have not yet read. This list is supplemented by pages on specific authors, from this list or in other categories (e.g. mystery writers).
The list currently consists of 40 books by 38 authors.