February 2013 | Fine Books Editors

Alcatraz: The Birth-Mark

Alcatraz at dawn on San Francisco Bay

Alcatraz at dawn on San Francisco Bay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of San Francisco's biggest tourist attractions doesn't attract much attention at the California Antiquarian Book Fair.  Hardly a book can be found about Alcatraz.


Populated by 1853, a prison by 1859, Alcatraz Island has had a colorful history as a military fort and a prison for everyone from Native Americans to soldiers in the Civil War, to the likes of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.  It was also home to others who were not prisoners.


Looking out over San Francisco Bay, it is impossible not to notice Alcatraz.  It is like the birthmark from Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, the single imperfection on an otherwise perfect face.  Visitors have looked to, through, past, and around Alcatraz to see the scenic beauty of the bay all around.  Indeed, the prisoners themselves recount seeing that same beauty around them, of watching New Year's Eve fireworks, and of watching from afar the lives of others go by.


There is no doubt that Alcatraz fascinates, but as one dealer at the fair told me, "Rare, collectable?  Not so much."    There are, however, plenty of books that have been written.  Some even fetch a few hundred bucks.  But this rock in the bay remains the birthmark - a curiosity and an imperfection - but mostly something on the landscape of California that has long been accepted and ignored.