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How Do You Capture Los Angeles in One Book?

Posted December 6, 2018 2:02 p.m. EST

A week ago, I wrote about a book that New York Times book critic Dwight Garner favorably reviewed, called “Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018.” It’s an anthology of letters and journals edited by David Kipen. It gives an expansive view of a city that can sometimes seem unfathomable. Garner writes that “the book deepens and expands and flyspecks our view of Los Angeles.” I asked Kipen about how you encapsulate a place like LA. Here’s what he said (lightly edited for space).

Q: What was the first text you read that made it into the book?

A: I found it in the enchanted UCLA Special Collections Library. They have the diaries of Glenn T. Seaborg in there, the Nobel Prize-winning co-discoverer of plutonium, who grew up in an LA County suburb called South Gate. On June 7, 1927, before he went to bed, Seaborg — one of the fathers of the atomic bomb — sat down and wrote only five words in his diary: “School. Made fire by friction.”

That’s when I knew I had a book.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found over the course of putting the book together?

A: The most surprising thing I learned is that the best diaries and letters don’t necessarily come from the most beloved authors.

Eric Knight, for instance, came to Hollywood from the Yorkshire dales, confident he could help the cinema realize its true potential. Within a year, he had a nervous breakdown. As therapy, he fled and started planting alfalfa. Soon, he was confiding to the folks back home: “I always have this typewriter, who looks at me open-faced each morning and loves me like my dog does.” If you’re so lonesome that your typewriter begins to look like a collie, you could do worse than what Knight wound up doing: Creating Lassie.

Q: As someone of Japanese-American descent, the entry from Aoki Hisa on Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor — hit me hard, because I could imagine my mom’s relatives feeling the same fear and confusion. Was there a passage that had that effect on you?

A: The first passage that comes to mind for me isn’t nearly as personal, but it still gets me every time. The diarist Christopher Isherwood wrote to a friend shortly after the assassination of JFK. He says this about the president: “In this quite largely anti-Kennedy town, which has so little to unite it, it was amazing how much everybody minded. People just sat listening to the radio in their cars and sobbing.”

I sometimes wonder what it’d take to unite Angelenos like that again. Something happier, I hope.