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California: A History

(Modern Library Chronicles #23)

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  1,117 ratings  ·  155 reviews
California has always been our Shangri-lathe promised land of countless pilgrims in search of the American Dream. Now the Golden States premier historian, Kevin Starr, distills the entire sweep of Californias history into one splendid volume. From the age of exploration to the age of Arnold, this is the story of a place at once quintessentially American and utterly unique. ...more
Paperback, 416 pages
Published March 13th 2007 by Modern Library (first published 1980)
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Average rating 3.76  · 
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 ·  1,117 ratings  ·  155 reviews

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Feb 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Returning to my home state after a 12-year exile, I realized the last time I'd studied California history was in the fourth grade. Kevin Starr's slim volume was just what I needed to catch myself up. 344 pages is by no means enough for a truly comprehensive history, but Starr deftly surveys the development of the state from Native American enclave and figure of Spanish legend into the behemoth it is today, while simultaneously tracing the artistic, scientific, political and social threads that ...more
Marion Dickel
Apr 20, 2011 rated it liked it
A little dry. Filled with lists of people - artists, politicians, etc. I need a more interesting history of CA to read.
Nov 02, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, history
In the notes of this book, Kevin Starr comments on his initial hesitation about how successful a one-volume history of the state of California could be. After reading California: A History, I think his first inclination was correct. There's a lot to say about California's colourful history, and I'm really not sure that this slight (~300-page) book does it justice.

It's not a bad book. But it's also not, all told, a book I got much out of.
Anna From Gustine
Dec 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Who is so boring that they would actually read a whole book about California? Me, that's who. I am just that boring.

California is actually my beloved home state. I am from the Central Valley (Gustine, in fact) which is NOT what most people think of when they think of California. A large part of the state is not San Francisco or Los Angeles. And that is one of the reasons I liked this book. It gives a full picture of the state which I appreciated.

This book is not for everyone. It may look dry,
Hakan Jackson
Aug 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book is like an encyclopedia on California. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is that there is little continuity, it goes from one piece of history to the next with little structure other than that it's mostly chronological. However, it was good in that I feel like I've walked away from this book learning a lot. So in short: it was worth the read, but don't expect a page turner from beginning to end.
Misael G
Oct 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Starrs exploration of Californias history as weve come to know it. My favorite parts were the mythologizing of California by the Spanish, early American settlers, and then again in the 1920s during the development of SoCal. The section on Disneyland as encapsulating the values of the time and suburban SoCal also blew my mind (I grew up in the OC).

I struggled a bit with the book - because it encompasses 500 years of history, it can be difficult to follow at times.
Jan 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
A very wide ranging history that covers most of what I wanted to know about the history of California. I picked up a lot of interesting tidbits about the people, places and the history of how California came to be. Would definitely recommend this to folks interested in interested in the subject.
Phillip Fernberg
Jan 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Well written and impressively comprehensive journey into the history of my dear homeland. This is the type of book that is worth owning if youre interested in always having an easy reference for California general knowledge thats not a dry textbook. It could use an update already as I feel a lot has happened in the last decade, but in any case this is probably the first book I will refer to people interested in state history from here on out.

California pride = reinvigorated
Robert Coleman
Feb 16, 2019 rated it liked it
This was a good primer for my time in California. It reads like reference book most of the time, and the lists of people, organizations, etc. can wear on you, but for a general overview of the state's history up to Arnold's governorship, it's not bad.
Dec 30, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This a book Ive been meaning to read for some time but non-fiction is always a hard sell in terms of getting me to actually pick it up. Generally, I prefer to listen to this type of thing as an audiobook. Given the topic, I decided to take it on my recent cross-country drive, which started with an eight-hour drive through the state. I have to say I was a little disappointed. If you dont know Kevin Starr, he is a historian who produced a seven-book chronological series about Americans and the ...more
Grant Mulligan
Oct 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
California: A History is one of those special nonfiction histories that reads like a novel. Fast, beautifully written, and captivating. It's a great read for California citizens and non-citizens alike. After moving to the state recently and knowing little of its history, Starr's book served as a fast-paced primer. Nonresident fans of American history will appreciate the story not because they'll know who so many SF streets are named after, but as reminder that New England doesn't hold sole ...more
Sep 03, 2019 rated it liked it
A really great book! I checked it out with the idea of reading just the bits and pieces relevant to the San Francisco Bay Area in preparation for a family trip back to where I grew up, but I ended up reading the entire book. It did not matter where I opened up the book, each chapter was really fascinating and pleasant to read. I expected a history book of California to be somewhat dry, but it was not. Learning about California history is not necessarily a high priority on my learning goals, but ...more
Frank Stein
Jan 20, 2019 rated it liked it
It was inevitable that Kevin Starr, the semi-official historian of California, would do a short synopsis of his work and of the history of the state. It was also inevitable that the resulting book would be little more than a collage of names and anecdotes with little structure, since squeezing together 200-plus years would leave little room for original insights. There are a lot of odd factoids about inventions from California (did you know the tractor was created by Fresno wagoneer Benjamin ...more
Tim Abraham
Aug 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
A great historical overview of our great state. Starts with the first European contact and ends with the rise of Silicon Valley. You'll encounter a lot of characters we see in names of places every day: Sutter, Fremont, Powell, Vallejo to name a few.

Fitting as much history into a few hundred pages is an amazing task when you think about all the rich cultural, economic, and natural gifts California has provided to the world in the last few centuries. From the gold rush to Yosemite to Hollywood
LeeAnn Heringer
For such a short book, it does hit all the high points. I'd be hard pressed to come up with important events in California that the book does not at least devote a paragraph on. But the book is rather superficial because it's trying to cover everything about 400 years of history. It runs at a gallop without really getting you close up to any of the cast of characters. I would suggest this as a reference book to get a list of events to read about more thoroughly if you don't know where to start ...more
Phillip Goodman
Mar 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Starr covers an impressive amount of ground with this brief history of California. Accordingly, the chapters in this book would be a great reference on any number of topics in California history: I most enjoyed the statehood process, the creation of new communities and towns, and the balance of politics in the early 2000s. I found the book slower at times when the author attempts to cover too much ground by moving away from a narrative style e.g. the 20th century labor struggles and the battle ...more
Jeffery James
The approach of this book is history as an inch deep and a mile wide. I can't say that I gained any insight into California, save for some trivial knowledge here and there. I also didn't appreciate the very sympathetic tone Starr takes towards European conquerors and colonists from the Spanish mission system to Anglo-American gold miners. The end of the book devolves into lists of names of artists, musicians, film makers, and entrepreneurs that were famous in the 20th century with a brief aside ...more
Oct 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A really worthwhile read- every paragraph could be a paragraph of its own. I picked this up because, even as a native Californian and someone pretty well-traveled and studied within the state, I felt like I didn't understand key moments of CA history and had big holes during certain eras of CA history. I think this did a good job at highlighting key histories, places, people, and events, but obviously didn't have the space to provide detail. I felt like there was a good balance between the ...more
Matt Schiavenza
Dec 09, 2019 rated it liked it
A concise, elegantly-written history of California by the state's most acclaimed historian, California: A History is reliably informative and readable. What's missing is an argument for why California became as exceptional as it is, both as an early-warning system for American politics and as our most future-facing state. Starr's volume functions more as a textbook than anything else it tells you the facts but distances itself from controversy or offers much of a point of view. This is arguably ...more
Ankit Gupta
Aug 11, 2019 rated it liked it
It was a pretty average book. Honestly, I couldn't finish it, but for two reasons- one because I couldn't finish it before coming back from my California vacation :) and secondly, it was too many people names with not as much insight in a crisp way as I would have liked. Some of the insights which I did pull out from the book were good and it gave me a good view of what is California.
Anyways, not the best history book I have read. I would discover more when I do move there sometime in my life.
Feb 03, 2018 rated it liked it
Its rare that I ever get bored from reading history. But at times this book was hard to get through. Perhaps it was the endless list of names without much backstory or narrative or perhaps it was the authors dry writing style. There were moments such as when Starr was describing the gold rush or the American annexation of California when it livened up and it felt more like a story rather than listing names of famous men.

The book ends with Starr falling all over himself with praise for the
Tim Basuino
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
I elected this to be my first e-checkout from the county library, and it was a pretty decent pick. For those who want a general overview of America's greatest state's history before delving deeper, I would highly recommend this.

Yes, at times the late Starr can be repetitive, but pretty much every major aspect of California's economy, history, and culture is touched upon. I am now planning to go through the author's individual components of this narrative.
Mar 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a good book to learn about the history of California since it was first discovered by the Europeans, to becoming a state of the United States, to current times. It doesn't go into detail for things that aren't necessary, and it covers many aspects of California culture such as arts, nature and environment, architecture, sciences and engineering, the dot-com companies and how its lifestyle influenced the whole world.
Shane Young
Oct 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the history of California
I really enjoyed this book but it left me wanting more. For example, the author covered some time periods in-depth but other periods only briefly. There were key elements and stories about different parts of the state that were clearly left out. I can understand because there is a ton of information to cover. This would have easily been a series of 3 or 4 books. I would love to see something similar for other states.
Tyler Snortum-phelps
Sep 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
OK, it's crazy to try to cram all of California history into 400 or so pages. But he did it! Sort of... Lots has to be skipped, lots of personal perspectives leaving out other, entirely valid, perspectives (OK, every history does that), lots of quick summarizing. But I really appreciated it, and of course if you're a histo-geek, it just gives you the areas that you want to pursue more deeply with other books.
Jun 26, 2017 rated it liked it
The author covers a lot of ground in only 344 pages. I appreciated the major theme of regret in the California promise over the centuries - the shadow along with the sunshine - the diversity and the xeonphobia. There was some material about the process of becoming a state of which I'd not heard. The close links between the military and California development and economy are also new items to me.
Susan Johnson
Jul 18, 2017 rated it it was ok
I gave this book two stars for two reasons. First, it was an easy read for a book of history. Second, as a California native I did learn a few things that I did not know before...and found interesting. That's it! Some of the content felt more like a social commentary rather than the presenting of historical facts.
Wavey Cowpar
Aug 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
To understand a people you have to understand their history. This book is compelling and interesting and unfolds that history first era by era and then in the last century topic by topic. Finally an afterword on the first decade and a half of the 21st century brings California out of its crippling recession and debt and back to being one of the largest economies on earth!
Aaron California
Mar 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Comments From A Californian

This book is highly recommend to all the people of California. It is an amazing book that expertly tells the history of the amazing State of California. This book is highly recommend to adults and teachers that teach the history of California. The history of California in this book is interesting and a good source of learning material.
I was born and raised in California. I studied it in 4th grade, like all/most California students, but that was my only education on California's history. This is a great and quick summary of a pretty remarkable history. I'm biased, of course, but Starr covers a lot in relatively few pages. There were some chapters that were tedious and tiresome, but I learned some new and interesting things.
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Kevin Starr was an American historian, best-known for his multi-volume series on the history of California, collectively called "America and the California Dream".

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Modern Library Chronicles (1 - 10 of 34 books)
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