No matter how dynamic I find Los Angeles, sometimes it feels like part of the furniture. What I mean is that even when you love a place, it can be hard to see. This is the appeal of three new books that offer a series of unexpected takes on the city and its vernacular. Considered together, they yield surprising parallels and intersections, overlapping like the railway lines on one of the Huntington Library’s yellowed maps of the city of a century ago.
Nineteen Nineteen, edited by Huntington curators James Glisson and Jennifer A. Watts, takes a global view of the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens’ founding year by pulling disparate artifacts—women’s-suffrage posters, wage ledgers, World War I relics—from the institution’s collections. Published to accompany the Huntington Centennial Celebration’s central exhibition, the book presents a scattershot portrait of a pivotal moment in history. An image called “The End of the War” showcases a strip of audiotape that recorded gunshots fading into cease-fire near France’s Moselle River. Concurrently, urban maps illustrate how, back home, Henry Huntington’s railroad empire had begun to shape Southern California.
By transforming his estate into “a temple to learning,” Huntington believed “this library will tell the story” of his life’s work; the collections tell much more. Nineteen Nineteen includes the title page to the foundational civil rights text The Negro Trail Blazers of California, which profiles pioneering African Americans such as former slave and Los Angeles philanthropist Biddy Mason.
Mason also shows up in Katie Orphan’s Read Me, Los Angeles: Exploring L.A.’s Book Culture, during a discussion of “The Story of Biddy Mason” by Dana Johnson, who stumbled on the inspiration for her story in downtown’s Biddy Mason Memorial Park. The book is a chatty guide to literary tourism in the city, but it has surprising depth. Orphan visits the stomping grounds of historic and contemporary Los Angeles writers (including Alta books editor David L. Ulin) and gathers illustrations, interviews, and reading lists to create a well-rounded resource.
While Read Me is a light romp, it has the potential to open new doors to familiar territory—namely the city itself. H.L. Mencken’s famously tart description of Los Angeles as “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis” appears in Read Me, but for some authors, sprawl emerges as a superpower. Los Angeles narratives are layered, shifting; just take a look (or a walk, or a drive) around.
Such layers also mark The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City, which includes graffiti as part of its fascinating inquiry. The work of Josh Kun, director of the School of Communications at USC Annenberg and a MacArthur Fellow, the book is the third in a trilogy that reconsiders the Special Collections holdings of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Launched in 1906 by city librarian Charles Lummis, the initial autograph collection sought to conjure fame by proxy, housing the signatures of Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and John Quincy Adams in a record of what Lummis called, with transparent boosterism, “People Who Count.” The Autograph Book crucially enlarges Lummis’s vision to encompass street art—“a practice for the un-autographed, those whose names were erased and ignored by design”—and contemporary Angelenos like Cheech Marin and Viet Thanh Nguyen as well as library patrons of all ages and walks of life.
The question of which names and legacies deserve to be remembered sits at the heart of The Autograph Book, and the diversity reflected in these new submissions, scrawled on replicas of Lummis’s library stationery, is true to present-day Los Angeles and its history. “Tongva women have never left their land,” writes elder Julia Bogany, beside a portrait of what appear to be three generations of Tongva women. “They just became invisible.” Her message underscores Kun’s observation that autographs are an assertion of permanence and a “gateway to the politics of memory, which can be as violent and brutal as claiming an old world as new.”
When was the last time I studied the portrait of Henry Huntington at his library, or took in the graffiti I drive past? Despite being born and raised in Los Angeles, I had never visited Biddy Mason Memorial Park, or even heard her name.
Agatha French is a Los Angeles journalist and author of the chapbook Goodnight Nobody.
• Edited by James Glisson and Jennifer A. Watts
• Huntington Library Press, 260 pages, $40
• By Katie Orphan
• Prospect Park Books, 224 pages, $35
• By Josh Kun; foreword by John F. Szabo; and introduction by Shepard Fairey
• Angel City Press, 224 pages, $45