Three Classic Chicago Books for Summer Reading

I’m often asked “What Chicago books should I read?” Since this question is usually during a tour, it’s fair to say our guests want to learn more. As a lover of literature and an alumna from the History Department of UIC, my studies are based on how we learn history without reading standard, dry history books; in other words, answering a question like this is my bread and butter. So, being that it’s summer and we all make our beach and vacation resolutions to read more, I thought I’d share my top three favorite Chicago books.

Chicago books Race Riots
Socialist Labor Pamphlet from Chicago Race Riots, 1919, described in Studs Lonigan

1. Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell.

Think of Chicago in the early 1900s and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair may pop into your mind. The Jungle is a great book, filled with emotion and gore and history. However, I do find Sinclair’s socialism to be a little preachy, and it bogs down the narrative. Instead I’d recommend Studs Lonigan, a trilogy by James T. Farrell. Don’t be intimidated by the word trilogy–each of these novels stands alone quite well. In this novel, Studs faces the challenges of any Chicagoan from child to manhood. Farrell presents this intrinsically with the clashes of race, the hierarchy of immigrants, and the historical events of early 20th-century Chicago, in particular Chicago’s South Side.

2. Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg

As a reminder of Chicago as both a poetic town and a gritty city, I can’t help but recommend Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, which gives our nickname, “Hog Butcher for the World.” Sandburg moved around a lot during his life, but he spent a few years before World War I in a rented room in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. He worked days as a journalist and nights as a poet. Some of his poems end up in Poetry magazine, which was founded here in Chicago, and in 1916 his Chicago Poems was published in book form. As a leading poet of the Chicago Renaissance, Sandburg’s poems offer a raw realism of the beauty of life in the big city.

Chicago books Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel on the bus home from work.

3. Working by Studs Terkel

Anyone who’s been on our tours know that we, as well as most of the historical scene here in Chicago, consider just about everything Studs Terkel to be gold (not to be confused with the title of the novel above). As an oral historian, Studs Terkel took to the streets to talk to Chicagoans for material for his many books, like Working, with a very to-the-point subtitle: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  This very personal portrayal of Chicago culture of the 1960s reveals not only mundane details but also dreams and ambitions. It defines the late 20th century Chicagoan as a hopeful, hard-working, helluva person. And I quite agree!

A few runners-up to this list would be City of the Century by Donald L. Miller for a more classic history book. There’s also the acclaimed Devil in the White City by Erik Larson which is about to become a movie. Plus I recommend just about anything by Mike Ryoko or Nelson Algren. And if you’re interested in a more liberal depiction of Chicago, consider The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do. Remember, no matter what you read or how much you learn, stay curious!

— Elizabeth Tieri, Chicago Detours Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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