Local sports heroes, controversial social experiments and an outlaw motorcycle gang….pick your wavelength and unplug for a bit.
Well…not that you ever needed a reason to read a book, but right now you are very likely at home AND—as we certainly realized recently—there is something to be said for the mental health component of taking a reprieve from news, social media and the overall onslaught of the latest info.
Mindful of that, we curated this list of non-fiction titles that chronicle many diverse facets of Bay Area history: the Black Panthers, the rise (and rule) of Silicon Valley, the Oakland A’s, Willie Mays and the…CIA’s LSD experiments at Stanford? Yep, it’s a colorful collection that speaks to the unique character of this place we call home.
So take a deep breath, find some time to unplug and settle in with a decent read…
American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford by Roland De Wolk
How much do you really know about Leland Stanford? Sure, the term “robber baron” might still resonate with you from 10th-grade history, but how much do you truly grasp about the life and legacy of the man who founded Stanford University?
The recently released biography by veteran Bay Area journalist Roland De Wolk gets deep into the details of the railroad magnate’s rollercoaster of a life, including multiple bankruptcies, the tragic death of his son, notable stints in political office, as both governor of California and a U.S. senator, as well as his highly impactful role in how the railroads would affect American history (including when Stanford bilked U.S. taxpayers out of millions of dollars in the aftermath of their construction).
In terms of timely relevance, De Wolk explores Stanford’s pioneering role in laying the foundations for modern Silicon Valley via his identity as a “technologist” and his vision for a modern trade school that would foster innovation (aka: Stanford University).
Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer
Perhaps you’ve caught snippets of this history in one form or another over the years, but longtime NY Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer has finally pulled together a complete history of how the CIA used the San Francisco Peninsula as a petri dish for its LSD experiments, which included Stanford University, the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, Ken Kesey, Robert Hunter (of Grateful Dead fame) and those very dark scenarios you caught via Errol Morris’s Netflix doc Wormwood. It all sounds pretty crazy…and yes, it really was.
Kinzer conveys this bizarre history by profiling the shadowy figure at the heart of these experiments: the CIA’s chief chemist Sidney Gottleib (or, as Kinzer explained it to the 650: a biography of a man “who didn’t exist”). The history is, on one hand, a case study in the darkest corners of U.S. Cold War maneuvering, yet also a legacy rife with irony, as it was Gottleib’s spread of LSD that factored heavily into the counter culture upheaval of the 1960s.
Read our full interview with Kinzer here….it’s a trip.
Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage and Fighting Back by Jackie Speier
In 1978, Jackie Speier was an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan and accompanied him on a fact-finding mission to French Guiana out of concern for what was happening in the commune of Jonestown. What ensued was a modern historical tragedy that resulted in the deaths of Ryan and more than 900 other individuals.
On the 40 year anniversary of those events, Speier published Undaunted, a new memoir which recounted her experience in Jonestown and her subsequent trajectory in taking up Ryan’s congressional seat (which she has now held since 2008).
There is a lot inside Speier’s memoir about her life and political career, but her moment by moment account of how the massacre at Jonestown unfolded—culminating with her being shot and left for dead at a jungle airstrip—is an absolute must-read.
Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic by Jason Turbow
In the early 1970s, the Oakland Athletics fielded what is arguably one of the greatest dynasties in the history of Major League Baseball, winning three consecutive World Series titles from 1972–1974.
Better yet, the team was populated by a roster of shaggy-haired weirdos who embodied the California lifestyle while posting numbers that would eventually land them in the Hall of Fame. You know—sports icons like Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers.
Jason Turbow’s recent account goes deep inside that oddball locker room and explores the team dynamics from one of the Bay’s key historic sports runs, documenting all the colorful personalities and the many zany interactions that ensued (like when owner Charlie Finley tried to change Vida Blue’s first name to “True” …just for marketing purposes).
…Bombastic is a fun and engaging slice of baseball history even if you’re not a diehard fan of the green and gold.
Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James S. Hirsch
Don’t worry Giants fans, we weren’t gonna leave you hanging after that last one. Yes, we know…3 in 5 years is no small thing (it’s great…seriously). But rather than point you at a tome celebrating the Torture Ball era, we’re going to steer you towards the bio of the Say-Hey Kid. Why? Because he was quite probably the very the best of all time.
James S. Hirsch’s in-depth biography of the iconic legend conveys all the details of Willie’s era-spanning trajectory, from the Negro Leagues to the Polo Grounds to a new age of baseball expanding to the West Coast. Simply put—Mays was an unparalleled talent as well as a beam of bright positive energy in the world.
And that basket catch….
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom & Waldo E. Martin Jr.
The Black Panthers were founded in Oakland circa 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton (by way of a Stokely Carmichael speech at UC Berkeley). The Panthers soon ushered in a more militant angle on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s…far more Malcolm than Martin.
Black Against Empire provides an in-depth and very nuanced account of the Black Panthers movement, which had as much to do with community soup kitchens and neighborhood educational programs than the armed marches on Sacramento. In this regard, the extensively researched book by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. is often considered a quintessential account, or, as Cornel West put it: “a definitive history of one of the great revolutionary organizations in the history of this country. ”
Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin
There has been no shortage of Silicon Valley histories published in the last few years. For us, the one that has really stood out is Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Stanford historian Leslie Berlin.
Troublemakers focuses on the formative years of Silicon Valley’s modern history, which Berlin identifies as 1969–1984. Within this key timeframe, her book looks beyond the high-profile Steve Jobs-type figures and features many of the forgotten developers and programmers who did the unsung heavy lifting in the background.
Case in point: Al Alcorn, the programmer who developed the ever-iconic PONG. Berlin profiles how Alcorn — working for an early version of Atari under Nolan Bushnell — was a trailblazing figure who spurred Silicon Valley’s often-forgotten role in launching the modern video game industry.
Silicon City: San Francisco in the Long Shadow of the Valley by Cary McClelland
Just as there have been many chronicles of Silicon Valley’s origins, we have also seen a multitude of books tackling this modern moment of how Big Tech is affecting the Bay Area (and the world beyond). While many of these are worthwhile, Cary McClelland’s approach in Silicon City is easily among the most compelling.
Rather than attempt to convince you that Big Tech is evil or just more carefully documenting what we all already know, McClelland’s project showcases a sweeping array of perspectives and testimonials from Bay Area residents living and working amid the tech boom: local activists, immigrant workers, high-profile tech designers, pawn brokers, angel investors, community figures, lifelong natives and many, many more. Rather than force a narrative, Silicon City brings everyone to the table to explain their experiences of life in a rapidly changing Bay Area. “Everybody sits democratically equal to each other on the page,” as McClelland explains it.
A cross between a Studs Terkel working-class chronicle and Howard Zinn’s People’s History…. Silicon City is an amazing document at a pivotal moment.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Well…in case you need an additional case study of the dangers of when charlatans chime in on medical issues….(just gonna let that hang there….).
Yes, you’ve probably caught some semblance of the sordid saga of Elizabeth Holmes by now, but why not go to the source? John Carreyrou was the reporter who broke the story wide open, and if you’re down about the media right now, Bad Blood will renew your faith in the power and importance of investigative journalism.
Better yet, Carreyrou’s chronicle reads like a fast-paced thriller, which often leaves you shaking your head as you turn the pages from one you-can’t-make-this-shit-up detail to another.
Following up on her debut masterpiece Brain on Fire, Susan Cahalan provides a definitive account of a unique Stanford experiment from the early 1970s. And no, not that experiment.
In fact, it’s interesting that the much-vaulted Stanford Prison Experiment from 1971 is so well known, yet this unique psychology experiment featured in Cahalan’s latest book—out of the same university just a couple of years later—is so utterly obscure (especially when considering that it is far, far more compelling).
It went like this: psychologist and Stanford University professor David Rosenhan sent a group of healthy people to be committed at an insane asylum and then monitored how they were being incorrectly assessed by the staff as mentally ill. Essentially, Rosenhan was testing whether the medical staff could truly distinguish between a healthy and unwell patient. The findings from his study would have profound impact on the field of psychiatry.
BUT. Much like the recent questioning regarding the authenticity of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Cahalan’s book reveals that there were essential flaws to the study and very long-lasting implications.
Season of the Witch by David Talbot
History often gets all-too-easily boiled down into tidy, but not-so-fully-accurate, sound bytes and San Francisco during the 1960s is a notorious case in point: The Summer of Love, Haight Ashbury, the Grateful Dead…it was all just one big happy hangout, right? Not so fast, says Bay Area journalist (and Salon.com founder) David Talbot. In his critically-acclaimed book Season of the Witch, Talbot explores the dark underbelly of that all-too-groovy notion: Charles Manson, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Altamont, the Zodiac killer, the Milk/Moscone assassination, Jonestown.
Yet, even more than those high-profile happenings, Talbot wades into the nuance, like how by 1969 the Haight-Ashbury (contrary to glossy popular memory) was actually a dangerous, crime-ridden neighborhood full of methamphetamine dealers and shuttered businesses.
It’s a riveting read, and Talbot’s book is required material for longtime locals and recent arrivals alike.
Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
The oldest book on our list is a modern classic that embodies “immersion journalism” before the term ever existed.
Prior to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson made his mark by getting in deep with the Bay Area’s highly-feared, outlaw motorcycle crew. How deep? Well, as Thompson wrote — “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.”
The overall result was a brutally honest social history of a unique place and time that ends (partial spoiler alert) in things going very sideways for Thompson in the hills of La Honda.
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More author interviews from The Six Fifty:
- Is Silicon Valley destroying the American worker? Tech writer Dan Lyons makes the case
- Trolling Trump: Obama photographer Pete Souza perfects the fine art of throwing shade.
- Journalist Franklin Foer tackles Silicon Valley’s “sham populism”
- Was the Stanford Prison Experiment a sham? A Q&A with the writer who exposed the celebrated study
- John Waters came to Stanford looking for "rich-kid arsonists" to hack Trump's porn downloads
- Beyond the stratosphere with breakout sci-fi author Andy Weir
- The perfectly sober comeback of…LSD?
- Discussing the unsavory politics of sweet things with the one-and-only Professor of Chocolate