Newcomer's Handbook Portland

A Portland Reading List

The volume of writing about the Pacific Northwest in general, and Portland in particular, can be overwhelming, particularly if you walk into a place like the Pacific Northwest Room at Powell’s Books, or even a branch library. This chapter lists only a few of the most useful and distinctive books about Portland and the region.

Architecture and Urban Planning

Portland cries out for a comprehensive book about its historic and modern architecture. The following books are the best currently available choices.

  • An Architectural Guidebook to Portland by Bart King
  • A Century of Portland Architecture by Thomas Vaughn and George McMath, published in 1967, is out of print but worth seeking out for its detailed descriptions of the city’s older buildings (many of which are still standing over 40 years later).
  • Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon, 1850-1950 by William J. Hawkins III and William Willingham
  • The Portland Bridge Book by Sharon Wood Wortman and Ed Wortman is an engaging guide to—surprise!—Portland’s bridges.

Urban planning may not be the sexiest topic around, but a grounding in the subject is essential to understanding Portland’s development. Here are a few tomes to get you started:

  • City Limits: Walking Portland’s Boundary by David Oates describes the author’s stroll along the entire urban growth boundary of the Portland metropolitan area.
  • Portland State University professor of urban studies Carl Abbott has written several books about Portland urban life, history, and urban planning. Although an academic rather than a popular title, Greater Portland: Urban Life and Landscape in the Pacific Northwest ties together Portland’s natural setting, culture, and urban planning. Abbott’s history of the city’s planning and growth, Portland: Planning, Politics, and Growth in a Twentieth-Century City, is out of print but is available at most public libraries.
  • The Portland Edge: Challenges and Successes in Growing Communities, edited by Connie P. Ozawa, is a compendium of essays about planning and its discontents.


Lots of authors make their home in Portland—Ursula K. Le Guin, Chuck Palahniuk, Jean Auel, Phillip Margolin, Chelsea Cain, and Katherine Dunn are a few of the city’s best known fiction writers—but not all of them use Portland as the setting for their stories. The majority of novels set in Portland seem to be mysteries and thrillers; the city’s weather makes for great noirish, Raymond Chandleresque atmosphere. Novels and stories that are set in whole or in part in Portland include:

  • Several of Beverly Cleary’s children’s stories, notably the Ramona books, which are set in Portland; Ramona Quimby (named after Portland’s Quimby Street, just like Mayor Quimby of Springfield in The Simpsons) lives on Klickitat Street (an actual Northeast Portland thoroughfare).
  • Geek Love by Katherine Dunn; narrated by an, um, hunchbacked albino dwarf, this truly disturbing novel is set partly in Portland.
  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin; this 1971 novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic (and yet not so—it’s hard to explain) future Portland.
  • Blake Nelson’s Paranoid Park teen skate thriller was made into a movie in 2007 by local director Gus Van Sant.
  • Chelsea Cain’s series of best-selling thrillers (HeartSick, Sweetheart, Evil at Heart) featuring the intelligent, beautiful, irresistible female serial killer Gretchen Lowell, and the reporters and detectives who become entangled with her, takes place entirely in and around Portland, complete with recognizable locations at which bodies and body parts are discovered.

A recent anthology, Reading Portland: The City in Prose, edited by John Trombold and Peter Donahue, includes several short story selections about the Rose City. The Portland Noir anthology, edited by Kevin Sampsell, is a collection of noir-ish stories set in Portland. The many novels set elsewhere in Oregon include several Ken Kesey titles (such as Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Honey in the Horn by H.L. Davis, a novel about homesteaders in Oregon in the first decade of the 20th century, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1936.



There are probably dozens of regional or city-specific tourist guidebooks that include Portland, from mainstream series like Fodor’s and Frommer’s to “backpacker” guides from Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. You probably won’t need any of them. You’re not a tourist; you live here now, or you’re thinking about it, and the sort of necessarily shallow coverage and narrow advice that most guidebooks and travel articles provide—stay downtown, eat in the Pearl District, go to a food cart, stand in line at Voodoo for mediocre donuts, look at the quirky freaks!—is just not going to be useful. Here are a few guidebooks that may interest residents as well as visitors.

  • The Best Places series of guidebooks (Best Places Portland, Best Places Northwest, etc.) is geared towards visitors, but the restaurant and leisure listings could be useful to newcomers.
  • Kelly Melillo’s Best Places to Pee: A Guide to the Funky and Fabulous Bathrooms of Portland, is much more illuminating than the title would suggest. And no, it’s not part of the Best Places guidebook series.
  • Don’t Jump! The Northwest Winter Blues Survival Guide, by Seattle writers Traci Voget and Novella Carpenter, is a tongue-in-cheek guide to living with gray, rainy weather.
  • For a unique and very alternative view of the city, try Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon by Portland novelist Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club, among other things).
  • Living With Earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest by Robert S. Yeats
  • The Zinester’s Guide to Portland: A Low/No Budget Guide to Visiting and Living in Portland, Oregon, by Shawn Granton and Nate Beaty; although only a few years old, this book is somewhat dated—the scene waits for no hipster—but it will still be useful for certain demographics and not useful (but still amusing) to certain others.

Outdoor Guides

Visit your local bookstore and you’ll find more hiking guides and other outdoor guidebooks to Oregon than you can shake a lightweight trekking pole at, not to mention field guides for everything from newts and ferns to whales and trees. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • The Mountaineers Books (, based in Seattle, publishes a slew of outdoor guides for Oregon and Southwest Washington, including guides to hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, bicycling, climbing, and boating. If you have a specialized interest, you’ll want to check out their publications on the topic. The guidebooks with the broadest appeal include The Waterfall Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest by Gregory Plumb; Best Short Hikes in Northwest Oregon by Rhonda and George Ostertag; 100 Classic Hikes in Oregon by Douglas Lorain; and Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon by Bonnie Henderson.
  • Laura O. Foster’s Portland Hill Walks: Twenty Explorations in Parks and Neighborhoods, Portland City Walks: Twenty Explorations in and around Town, and The Portland Stairs Book, along with Walking Portland by Becky Ohlsen, outline interesting walking tours around the city.
  • Eugene-based explorer and prolific writer William L. Sullivan has authored many Oregon guidebooks, including the popular “100 Hikes” series; the Portland-area entry, 100 Hikes in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, now in its fourth edition, is possibly the best local hiking guide available. Other useful books include the Atlas of Oregon Wilderness, Oregon Trips & Trails, and Hiking Oregon’s History: The Stories Behind Historic Places You Can Walk To.
  • Wild in the City: A Guide to Portland’s Natural Areas, edited by Mike Houck, the Audubon Society of Portland’s urban naturalist, and travel writer M.J. Cody, exhaustively catalogues greenspaces in and near the metropolitan area; dozens of local writers and naturalists describe the landscape and natural history of these areas, and suggest walking, paddling, biking, and birdwatching tours.

Regional History

Thousands of books, most now out of print, cover virtually every aspect you could imagine of Pacific Northwest history in general and Portland history in particular. If you’re a history buff, a trip through the regional history section of your local public library, or a wander through the groaning aisles of used books at Powell’s, will be a rewarding endeavor. The books below represent a small sample of what’s available:

  • Fire at Eden’s Gate: Tom McCall and the Oregon Story by Brent Walth tells the story of Oregon’s dynamic governor Tom McCall, who was largely responsible for many of the state’s environmental innovations—the bottle bill, public ownership of the entire coastline, and statewide land use planning, among others—in the 1960s and 1970s. Read this and come away with the realization that they don’t make ’em like they used to.
  • The Great Extravaganza: Portland and the Lewis and Clark Exposition by Carl Abbott; that’s “exposition,” not “expedition”—the 1905 fair that marked the centennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition was a turning point in Portland’s development.
  • Naked Against the Rain: The People of the Lower Columbia River 1770-1830 by Rick Rubin (out of print) tells the story of the native peoples of Northwest Oregon at the dawn of European settlement in the region.
  • Oregon 1859: A Snapshot in Time, by Janice Marschner, describes each of Oregon’s original counties in the year of statehood.
  • Oregon: This Storied Land by William G. Robbins.
  • The Oregon Story: 1850-2000, put together by the Oregonian newspaper, is a concise, accessible history of the state.
  • Portland: People, Politics and Power 1851-2001, by Jewel Lansing, provides surprisingly juicy historical details about Portland’s politics, personalities, and general development over the last 150 years.
  • Portland Then and Now by Linda Dodds and Carolyn Buan is interesting mainly as a visual record of the city’s evolution; the book juxtaposes old and new photos of various locations around Portland.
  • Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon by Marie Rose Wang.
  • Timberline and a Century of Skiing on Mount Hood by Jean Arthur.
  • Willamette Landings: Ghost Towns of the River by Howard M. Coming describes the many riverboat landings along the river, and how every town vied to become the state’s big metropolis.

Reference Books

  • The Atlas of Oregon, issued by the University of Oregon Press, features nearly 300 pages of beautifully rendered, highly detailed maps dealing with virtually every aspect of the state’s history, natural environment, and demographics, ranging from Native American language groups (circa 1850) to soil types, urban development patterns, and county-by-county voting results in every presidential election since 1928. If you get just one reference book about Oregon, this should be the one.
  • Each year, the Oregon Secretary of State publishes the Oregon Blue Book, a compendium that’s chock full o’ facts and figures about state government.
  • The Oregon Almanac: Facts About Oregon by Andrea Jarvela, as the title suggests, is an unofficial compendium of facts about the state.
  • Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis McArthur describes the origins of thousands of Oregon place names, from Aaron Mercer Reservoir to Zwagg Island.
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