Finding Berkeley in books

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Living in Berkeley, we are blessed with an abundance of pop-culture resources  just walk down Telegraph Avenue and you’ll pass Rasputin and Amoeba music stores as well as Moe’s Books and Shakespeare & Co. But whether or not you’re a bibliophile at heart, there’s no denying that literature and Berkeley have a special connection. Over the years, many authors have come to either reside in Berkeley or write about its charms, and every one of them has something different to say about the city.

Recent literature focuses on diversity as one of Berkeley’s unique attributes. In “Maya’s Notebook,” written by Isabelle Allende, a young Chilean American teenager is raised in Berkeley by her grandparents. When they die, she is left alone and spirals into a life of drugs and crime, traveling to other cities in the United States. To Allende, Berkeley is a complicated multicultural environment. Jonathan Lethem plays tribute to this idea in his book “The Fortress of Solitude,” comparing Berkeley to Camden: “The school was Camden’s reverse — an Asian, Mexican, black, and white sea of students, a bayside city in place of Camden’s evergreen art-school hothouse.”

Post-World War II, a group of four writers, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg came to prominence, calling themselves the “Beats.” Their writing heavily emphasized rejection of writing standards, free expression and explicit depictions of the human condition. Ginsberg, though most well-known for his poem “Howl,” wrote about the natural beauty and unique environment of the town in “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.” He found Berkeley a good place for hiding and concealing things, saying that he “found a good coffeepot in the vines by the porch, rolled a big tire out of the scarlet bushes, hid my marijuana.” Kerouac seems to view the city in a similar esoteric light, writing in the book “The Dharma Bums” that “it was a cool clear Arabian Night dusk with the tower clock of University of Cal a clean black shadow against a backdrop of cypress and eucalyptus and all kinds of trees, bells ringing somewhere, and the air crisp.” To the Beat generation, Berkeley was a mystical, otherworldly place of escape.

Other writers write about the university the way we would expect it was in the 20th century. In Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” he writes that “(Oedipa Maas) came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blond hair, hornrims, bicycle spokes in the sun, bookbags, swaying card tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM’s, YAF’s, VDC’s, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue.” Jack London also characterizes Berkeley as essentially a college town in his semi-autobiographical book “Martin Eden.” He writes that “he caught a Telegraph Avenue car that was going to Berkeley. It was crowded with youths and young men who were singing songs and ever and again barking out college yells.”

Norman Mailer sees UC Berkeley students in a less favorable light in “The Armies of the Night,” writing that “this student had a Berkeley style which Mailer did not like altogether: it was cocky, knowledgeable, and quick to mock the generations over thirty.” Though Mailer sympathized with the Left, he had a strained relationship with hippies and student activists, and this shows in his portrayal of the young, entitled UC Berkeley student.

Most books set in Berkeley create a world that is defined by its unique character and its separation from the rest of the country. In literature, Berkeley seems to be the active, hippie town of the 1960s set in front of the backdrop of curious, passionate students attending a reputed university.

Of course, some things never really change. In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s “Queen of Dreams,” a book about a young woman who is a struggling artist living in Berkeley, she says “not that one can actually speed through the nine A.M. Berkeley streets, filled as they are with students who believe it’s their God-given right to cross when and where they wish.” Guilty as charged.

Whether Berkeley is portrayed as an intellectual hotspot, or as the smaller, crazier version of San Francisco, our town has inspired writers from many different backgrounds. As their worlds shape ours, the city of Berkeley changes depending on the lens you view it through. But there’s one thing we hope will never change  this beloved town will continue to be a source of inspiration for years to come.

Contact Shruti Koti at [email protected].