Last week, I was talking to one of my coworkers who is currently reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. She was reading it because she wanted to learn more about Chicago, both its history and literature. Personally, I’ve never read the book and probably won’t read it in the future.
However, it got me thinking about books about Chicago. What books would I recommend to someone reading about Chicago? Now, this is not an all-inclusive list by any stretch of the imagination. I’m learning a lot about Chicago history and have many more great books to read. However, I have listed a few books below that I have thoroughly enjoyed about our fair city.
1. Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott
This has to be one of my favorite history books ever. It is a wonderful history book about the notorious (and amazing) the Everleigh Sisters and their brothel the Everleigh Club. Whatever you feel about prostitution, these women were badasses. It also discusses other characters, like Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink Kenna, in the Levee, Chicago’s Red light district. The book also looks at the religious crusaders against the Levee and prostitution. I’ve played Minna Everleigh at least twice in historical reenactments and my portrayals are based on this book.
2. Twenty Years at Hull House by Jane Addams
Yes, this is number two because Jane Addams is the bees knees. She started Hull House, founded Peace organizations, won the Noble Peace Prize, and much more. She writes about her early life and intellectual formation, children’s rights, women’s rights, fights against political corruption, the Pullman strike, and so much more. This is an important and interesting book to read about Chicago and activism history. Not only did she do great things, she writes really articulately about them. Also, she isn’t afraid to talk about her mistakes too.
3. My Thirty Years’ War: An Autobiography by Margaret Anderson
Margaret Anderson is a character. She started the Little Review, a literary journal that first published James Joyce’s Ulysses in serial in the United States. This book is a crazy account of her early life to her 30s. She is vivacious, and scheming. She really pushes the boundries and somehow manages to borrow grand pianos a lot. And she lived in a tent on the beach near Chicago for awhile to save on rent.
4. The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
This is a wonderful coming of age novel about a girl living in Chicago in a Hispanic community. It’s a series of vignettes sometimes only a page or two long. Cisneros’ language is lush and haunting.
5. Anything by Studs Terkel
Okay, I’m cheating here. Studs Terkel wrote many books and many didn’t deal with Chicago directly. However, I think his philosophy and spirit in his books is fundamentally Chicagoan (or have become Chicagoan). Many of his books are oral histories of people. Some are centered around a topic like the Great Depression and others around a music. So go and read Division Street or Giants of Jazz if you are interested in learning about people. A wise man once said: “if you are tired of London, you are tired of life.“ Well, I think it’s fair to say if you are tired of Studs Terkel’s books, you are tired of life.
6. Anything by Stuart Dybek
I’ll confess that I haven’t read Dybek in years. I’ve been meaning to reread his works. But what I remember remains strong in my memory. He captures the day to day life of Chicago in such beauty and sometimes humorous terms. Check out Childhood and other Neighborhoods or The Coast of Chicago. He also writes poetry.
7. Neon Wilderness by Nelson Algren
This book of short stories takes you to the part of Chicago that we want to forget about. Sometimes the stories are hard to handle. But Nelson Algren brings the drunks, the junkies, and other forgotten people from out of the shadows and makes you aware, even for a few minutes, about the other Chicago. I think his work is important to read to have a fuller view of Chicago.
8. Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America, edited by Paul Durica and Bill Savage
This book was intended to be a guide for travelers to the 1893 World’s Fair. It ended up coming out later than expected (and many places listed in the book had since closed). But it’s a wonderful look at late 19th century US. It’s witty at times. (At one point, it says that the best place to see gambling is the stock exchange). Full Disclosure: the editors are friends of mine. But it is well worth checking out.
And that’s it for now. I’ve got a long way to go. I need to read something by Alex Kotlowitz. But I’m open to more suggestions. And I have no intention of reading Devil in the White City. Sorry.
Right now, I’m reading Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast. It took a bit to get into it but I’m really digging it right now. It’s a wonderful history of Chicago from just before WWII through the 1960s. It brings together many narratives about Chicago from its architects, politicians, and African American leaders and artists. It weaves blues, McDonalds, Playboy, housing, racism, Great Books together.