The Literary Life

Ah, the Bay Area, lucky in so many ways. Breathtaking to behold. A gorgeous stretch of water. A world-class city. Lovely weather. Great food. And just to top it off, a literary hot spot, right up there with New York and Paris when it comes to all things bookish.

Not only do we buy more books per capita than any other city (take that, New York!), we have more locally owned independent bookstores, and some of the country’s best and most beloved writers live in our midst. It all makes for a very lively literary life. What follows is just a sampler of the book-inclined action—from monthly series at bars to bookstore readings to literary festivals—where you can rub elbows with the literati. Get out those black berets.

Book Passage
Basic Plot: Through its classes and genuine enthusiasm for good books, Book Passage has launched the careers of more than one writer.

If you’re literate and you live in Marin, you’ve been to Book Passage. It bills itself as the “Bay Area’s liveliest bookstore,” and that’s not a boast, but a fact. Rare is the day when B.P. has only one reading scheduled, and in addition to readings and signings by the world’s best authors, it hosts writing workshops, conferences, classes, a cooks-with-books series and book groups.

Grotto Nights
Basic Plot: Grotto Nights are your chance to get that clubby, member-of-the-Grotto feeling.

The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto is a warren of offices occupied by busy authors and artists. It may just well be our answer to New York’s famed Algonquin round table (with more writing and fewer martinis). Founded more than a decade ago by Ethan Watters, Ethan Canin and Po Bronson, the Grotto hosts occasional public events and readings. Next event: October 4 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. 

Literary Death Match
Basic Plot: The competition, held in a bar, isn’t completely tongue-in-cheek; these writers are in it to win it.

A monthly reading in which four authors, invited by Opium magazine, read for 10 minutes each in a battle for the evening’s title of champion. S.F. venues change monthly.

Basic Plot: Litquake has become the Bay Area’s signature literary event, occupying the space left vacant by the long-gone Book Festival. This annual weeklong festival continues to get bigger and better. Events range from the respectable — lunch with Ann Patchett or a panel on Science and Religion — to the rowdy and wild: Lit Crawl, the festival’s final event, in which hundreds of writers read at multiple venues in S.F.’s Mission District. October 3–11.

Narrative Night
Basic Plot: Marquee writers like Jane Smiley, Barry Gifford and T. C. Boyle side-by-side with unknowns.

You’ll have to wait until March for Narrative Magazine’s next soiree, but you can get your fix of fiction, essays and poetry edited by husband-and-wife dream team Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks at the online journal.

Point Reyes Books
Basic Plot: This little bookstore that could has held back the tide of huge chain stores by becoming an integral community member.

Not only does it hold traditional author readings; it hosts a Spanish reading group and a Monday night Knit Lit group and publishes the new West Marin Review, a journal featuring work by literary luminaries like Robert Hass alongside artwork by local schoolchildren.

Basic Plot: No notes. These storytellers rely strictly on memory and quick wit.

An almost-monthly series of themed storytelling that features writers and nonwriters alike, as long as they can weave a good yarn; founded by local funny-girl Beth Lisick and Arline Klatt six years ago. Recent themes have included “brushes with fame,” “friends on all fours” and “I quit.” At the Swedish American Hall, SF 

Writers with Drinks
Basic Plot: Drag queens and stand-up comedians might appear with best-selling authors.

A distinctly unstuffy mishmash of all things word-related—essays, poetry, fiction and lots of what falls squarely into the “other” category—sponsored by Other magazine. At the Make-Out Room, SF

Other places to get literary: Zoetrope: All Story (, City Arts & Lectures (, the Depot Bookstore (, Writing Mamas (, Left Coast Writers (, Inside StoryTime at the Edinburgh Castle (, Babylon Salon at Cantina S.F. (

Local Type

Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences by Janis Bell ($22, W. W. Norton) Janis Bell is the warm, smart English teacher you wish you’d had, and her new guide to grammar, at once authoritative and good-humored, is the grammar book you’ve been waiting for. It’s not everything, just the most common mistakes.

A16 Food + Wine by Nate Appleman and Shelly Lindgren ($35, Ten Speed Press) A16 in San Francisco has long been known as the place chefs go to eat. This new cookbook from the restaurant’s chef and wine director is a celebration of southern Italian cooking and includes recipes such as chili-spiked seafood stew, delicate antipasti and Naples-style pizza.

Nicasio by Anne M. Papina and Point Reyes Peninsula by Carola DeRooy and Dewey Livingston ($19.99, Arcadia Publishing) Marin County history is brought to life through these two new additions to the Images of America series. Both books are full of vintage photos and historical tidbits. Available at bookstores throughout the Bay Area.