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Ask Chicagoist: Chicago History Books?

By Thales Exoo in Miscellaneous on Jul 13, 2007 3:00PM

I am relocating to Chicago in the upcoming weeks, and I wanted to bone up onChicago info. I have already read all the tourist guides and city guides, but I really wanted a good book on Chicago, history, legends, stories, facts, etc. Can you recommend one worth reading?

- Thanks

2007_07_askbooks.jpgHi, newcomer! And welcome to Chicago! We think it's great that you want to learn more about the city you're going to be living in. Chicago has such a rich and interesting past, it seems that anyone who is even a little bit curious about history finds Chicago's to be especially fascinating.

So in summary: there's always plenty of corruption to be found here, we reversed the flow of the river, there was a fire, we hosted a really big fair, there were some big labor disputes, we try to forget about the Black Sox scandal, there was some guy named Al Capone who lived here, we like electing mayors named Daley, no one will ever agree on why we're the Windy City, and our architecture can't be beat.

You probably want to know more, huh? Fine.

Chicagoist's favorite Chicago history read is City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America by Donald L. Miller. Now this book is specifically about 19th century Chicago. But really, the 19th century is a great place to start in Chicago history! You've got the fire, the start of all that great architecture, and the Columbian Exposition. Plus the writing is engaging — history that reads like a really good novel is our favorite kind.

Another popular book, and one of Ask Chicagoist's favorite web sources, is the Encyclopedia of Chicago, edited by James R. Grossman. This is just a really cool all-encompassing book, developed by the Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum (two great places to check out once you're here to find more Chicago history tidbits) that will tell you pretty much everything you ever thought to find out about Chicago. It's an amazing book, and even more amazing (to us) is the accompanying website where we find ourselves sometimes getting lost in following a trail of related articles that aren't really about the question we're trying to answer that week ...

One of those books that looks really cool because we're drawn in by pictures and personal essays is Chicago Days: 150 Defining Moments in the Life of a Great City, put out by the Chicago Tribune. They picked what they consider to be 150 of the most defining moments of Chicago history and illustrate them with photos and essays. Pretty cool concept, especially since we're suckers for lists. We imagine some debate about the 150 moments would be inevitable.

Don't miss Chicago by Chicago's beloved Studs Terkel. Studs, not too surprisingly, illustrates the history of Chicago with remarkable detail and storytelling prowess. He not only tells the history of the city, he tells how significant events related to his life. We love Chicago history books that make us feel proud of our city -- faults be damned. Quirks are what makes a place unique and interesting, no?

Also not to be overlooked is Nelson Algren's, Chicago: City on the Make, originally published in 1951. OK, more than not overlooking this one, we should probably concede that it's actually the best book about Chicago -- ever. More than just telling the history of Chicago, Algren illustrates the history through imagery and metaphor. He points out the corruption and scandal while still focusing in on all that he loves about Chicago. He seems to use Carl Sandburg's famous Chicago poem as a stepping-stone to his remarkable prose which celebrates Chicago:

Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.

A really great source for Chicago history tidbits? Don't forget about Chicagoist! We'd love to answer your questions. Send them in!

What Chicago history books would you recommend to our new friend and neighbor?

Image via gadl

Doomed to repeat the past? Need some advice? Email ask(at)chicagoist(dot)com.