Season of the Witch, David Talbot


When I go on holiday somewhere I like to read histories or novels set in the place, to get a better sense of what it’s like from the inside. I just moved to San Francisco full-time, so was scouting around for a book/books that could make me feel like more of a San Franciscan. My friend/co-founder Ceci was already reading a hard copy version of Season of the Witch when we moved, and recommended it as fitting this bill.

I loved the book. It’s written by David Talbot, founder of Salon, and covers the history of San Francisco from the 1960s through 1980s. That sounds like a short period of time, but holy shit did a lot happen. The writing is suspiciously vivid and specific, with beautiful, tragic stories painted in gruesome detail — delving deep into the motivations and feelings of the characters involved in each story, and drawing out how these reflected the throbbing soul of the city at the time.

One lesson that came through the different pieces of the book is how susceptible left wing values and language are to being co-opted by forces of evil. It’s easy to be aware of this phenomenon on a macro level given the looming examples from the 20th century of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, but the stories from San Francisco, the city of good, brought it home in smaller, more local examples. In particular, the sections on the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst, the Zebra murders, and the Peoples Temple stand out as multi-chapter stories which are so incomprehensibly horrible that you can’t stop listening.

Talbot is so good at telling these stories with such suspense that I’d recommend not clicking those links above if you plan to read/listen to the book. I had some significantly emotional moments with this book — think trying not to well up on the BART — and am glad I didn’t know where many of these stories were going.

Despite these depressing lessons about the dangers of co-opted language, the beauty of the book is that San Francisco emerges as a place where left-wing awesomeness actually does win — though it takes a lot of pain to get there. Sexual freedom and the gay liberation movement really are amazing. Standing up for the disempowered actually can work. San Francisco actually is a more tolerant, chilled out place that most bits of middle America. One of the strangely beautiful moments from the book is the few chapters near the end that describe the 49ers, San Francisco’s (American) football team, and its surge forward at a time when San Francisco most needed unity. Sports being culturally important in San Franciso — a bizarre thought. The story culminates with a match between the underdog 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys — “America’s team, God’s team”. The 49ers’ overly emotional, tolerant coach Bob Walsh faces off against his alpha male, racist counterpart at the Cowboys. I won’t give spoilers on how the match ends. The symbolism was beautiful, and triumphant near the end of such a harrowing book.

Overall I could not recommend this book more highly. Masterful writing, and an incredible subject. It’s cool to be in the city a few decades later, and see how things have gone now that all the big characters described in the book are history.

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