Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003

We're not sure why he skipped the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s

By Kevin Starr

Alfred A. Knopf (2004), $35

Kevin Starr is our own Dr. Gibbons (though more prolific), chronicling California's rise and fall and rise in seven volumes (and counting). The California state librarian emeritus began in 1973, with Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915, and has turned one out every few years, usually covering a decade of the state's history in eclectic style, where fads and fashion take their place beside politics and the economy. Coast of Dreams signals a departure, both chronologically -- Starr skips the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, especially fertile periods for his method, to concentrate on the decade just past, ending with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the recall election for governor in October 2003 -- and professionally, being published by Knopf rather than the Oxford University Press. This edition also abandons the previous books' uniform, brightly colored art deco cover illustrations for a pale, muted, misty photograph of five surfers in a calm sea awaiting the perfect wave. While evenhandedly charting the new multicultural identity of California, the state's north-south divisions, and the high-tech boom and bust, among many other topics, Starr writes of such recent subjects that his wide-ranging, charmingly digressive technique seems sketchier and less magisterial than usual, certainly to California readers (we're a little too close to the material, both in time and space). Distance adds nostalgia as well as perspective; I could see Starr returning to the '90s later, after turning his attention to the missing decades of his Dream series.

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