Chicago, Chicago!

Last month I read Carl Sandburg’s poetry so I’d have something “local” to submit to the Bookworms Carnival: Local Authors. I realized as I read his poetry that I know very little about my own home town. I spent some time learning about Chicago history this month, and it’s been fun. I’m also working on some reading lists so I can keep learning. Let me know your favorite Chicago-centered books, fiction and nonfiction.

I found that many of the books I got were quite dry histories, and I didn’t have much patience with them. I read some and mostly I looked at the pictures of some. My history lesson came from videos. Here are two of the books I’ve read and one of the videos that I’ve enjoyed lately.

Chicago: Then and Now by Elizabeth McNulty was the first book that I picked up. It’s a coffee table book, and it compares street corners and neighborhoods over the years. It provided a short paragraph about the scene, and had the “then” picture on the left-hand page and a “now” picture on the right-hand page. I am not very familiar with Chicago today, let alone in the past, so it probably wasn’t the best starting point, but it was still interesting. I was interested enough to keep searching for more information.

Lost Chicago by David Lowe focuses on the buildings that have been torn down. Since I’ve never lived in the city, it’s not as tragic to me, and I got rather tired of the drama (this building has “disappeared” and this “gem” has been horrifically removed). Beyond that, though, the book provided a very general history of Chicago in between the photographs, starting with Louis and Clark and going through the Chicago fire and to the early 20th century. Because the focus was on the photographs of the now-torn down buildings, the history was not too dense for me. I learned about a little about the Chicago School of Architecture and I’m eager to learn more. I also found myself interested in some more of the history.

I mentioned the video Chicago: City of the Century in my Reading Journal post last week. It was excellently done, and I thought watching a three-disc documentary was a wonderful way to grasp some of the history of Chicago without having to read a 700-page book. It was slightly cheesy in its drama, but overall, this movie was a great beginning. I know it was not too cheesy because I also started a different one that was so horribly done I couldn’t watch more than 30 minutes. I won’t bother pointing you to that one.

What to Read?

As I’ve read and learned about Chicago, I’ve found a lot of different things to add to my “to read” lists. If you’ve read any of these, please let me know what you thought.  What Chicago books come to your mind? It seems Chicago isn’t often a memorable setting for novels, as London and New York are.

Nonfiction

  • Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams. Autobiography of a serious Chicago social humanitarian. I’ve already started this, and I’m loving the insight into a difficult place and people.
  • The Autobiography of an Idea by Louis Sullivan. Autobiography from one of the initiators of the Chicago school of architecture.
  • The Chicago School of Architecture by Carl Condit. I’m interested in more Chicago architecture info; even if I don’t read these things in full, it’s still interesting to skim through.

Fiction

  • Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. A Chicago author that wrote a turn-of-the-century Chicago novel. I want to read it now.
  • The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Poetry from turn-of-the-century Chicago. Apparently each poem is from the perspective of a different dead person in the cemetery, telling the story of his or her life.
  • Native Son by Richard Wright. A novel about a citizen of Chicago.
  • Lucy Grayheart by Willa Cather. I love the few Cather novels I’ve read. This one has some scenes in Chicago.
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I don’t really want to read this, but I feel I should. Especially after learning all about Chicago’s stockyards. Yuck already.

I really wanted to end with a little Frank Sinatra singing about That Toddlin’ Town. But I can’t find the real man on YouTube. Here’s a cover band.

And if you’d rather, here’s the Obama version.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Well, the first that comes to my mind is “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, but some parts of the book are pretty gruesome, so I didn’t really enjoy it that much. The history of the 1893 World Fair in Chicago was interesting, though.

    What about Frank Lloyd Wright? Although I think he is more associated with the Chicago suburbs. I enjoyed “Loving Frank” by Nancy Horan and am waiting for “The Women” by T.C. Boyle to come out in paperback. Both are fictional accounts of Frank Lloyd Wright.

  2. I think I read the Jane Addams book in grad school. Very cool that the Sandberg poems inspired you to delve into Chicago history and books! Some of my favorite books about cities are the ones that show old and new photos taken from the same angle. I could recommend a great one of Portland… but I’d be surprised if there weren’t a few of those focusing on Chicago.

  3. I’ve read Sister Carrie. It was not so much about Chicago, but you kind of get a sense of society and working conditions for women. I read it for a 19th Century American Lit class, and it was actually one of the more interesting reads of that class.

  4. Valerie, I thought I should mention that one, but I neglected to. I started it a few years ago but the serial killer aspect really freaked me out. So I stopped. But my IRL book club is reading it in January, so maybe I’ll revisit it. I just don’t like serial killer books or movies or even tv shows!

    I’ll have to learn about Wright. I was going to start with Chicago School of Architecture and see how Wright fits in with that. Thanks for the ideas. I didn’t know of those novels.

    Ali, I really like Jane Addams’ book thus far! I’ve seen a few other Then and Now books, but the one above is the only one I read in full this time around. Very interesting.

    Haiku Amy, I think most of the novels above aren’t so much about the city as the city is a setting for some other interesting aspect. I’m looking forward to reading Sister Carrie now. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  5. I do believe I left my lamest comment ever–somehow I missed the Then and Now book you said you were reading? I don’t know.

    Hey, what about Studs Lonigan, have you read that? It’s very Chicago.

    And for nonfiction, I’ve heard Studs Terkel’s Working is amazing. While not specific to Chicago I think that’s where Terkel was based, so it probably has some Chicago flavor to it.

  6. No Ali, yours was not a lame comment. I tend toward the verbose, so no hard feelings for the tendency to skim. 🙂

    I haven’t heard about Studs Lonigan, but Studs Terkel was one of the interviewees for the documentary I watched. He was very old. I think Working sounds interesting from the summaries I found!

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