It’s hard for me to imagine a better holiday gift than good Chicago history books. They hold the promise of gripping narratives, undiscovered facts, and greater perspective and understanding. It’s like manna from heaven for big ol’ history and architecture nerds, like yours truly. But which Chicago history books are worth gifting? To help you decide, we run down some of our favorites.
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1. City of Scoundrels
I just read this book a month ago and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. This book, written by Gary Krist, delves into the “12 days of disaster that gave birth to modern Chicago.” These days, in the dog days of the summer of 1919, sent the Windy City to the brink of civic collapse. Chicago endured everything from the fiery chaos of a blimp crashing into a LaSalle Street bank to a crippling transit strike and the city’s largest race riots. It was a fortnight of pure chaos and Krist turns it into the grist of a gripping story.
Perhaps what I liked most about City of Scoundrels how it captured the zeitgeist of that time. This was still very much a city on the make in 1919. Chicago was less than a century old, brimming with people from every part of the globe, and primed to conquer the 20th Century come hell of high water.
The personification of this time, in all its promise, hubris, and eventual stumble, is Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson. A populist demagogue, he won office by telling ethnic Chicagoans what they’d like to hear and then ran a corrupt, somewhat hapless old-school machine one ensconced in city hall. The echoes of him in contemporary politics are obvious and unmistakable. Simply, this is one of the best Chicago history books I’ve ever read.
2. Chicago Monumental and Apparitions
These are two coffee table books that came to our attention earlier this year. Each are strong additions to the tradition of photo-heavy Chicago history books. Chicago Monumental, by Larry Broutman, features beautiful photography of the many works of public art and civic monuments around town. The photography, as a rule, is incredibly beautiful and captures these works in fresh, dramatic lights. I’ve seen a lot of monuments and public art in Chicago. But only rarely have I seen it look like as it does in this book.
But Broutman also delves off the beaten path and brought some interesting works to my attention. Highlights include the monument to Confederate war dead and a plaster bust of Lincoln’s head. That one is already a piece of history, in fact. It was recently vandalized and then removed from the Englewood curbside it’d sat at for decades.
Apparitions is the product of T. John Hughes, who was a guest on a Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour with me earlier this year. His book is a succession of overlaid images of past to present. A ghostly photo of a demolished building is laid upon a photo that Hughes has taken of the same spot in the present day. Chicago actually only makes two appearances in the book, but the images are lovely and fascinating. Plus, the sight of a timber-framed cottage sitting at what’s now the grand entrance of the Palmer House is startling enough to make it a recommendation for our holiday gift list.
#3. Lost Chicago
Confusingly, there are two different image-heavy coffee table books that share this title by different authors. The better (and older) one is by David Garrard Lowe. It covers the whole sweep of Chicago’s architectural history with paintings, drawings, and gorgeous photography. The city’s history and the evolution of its architecture are laid out in brief essays. This title is probably already on many shelves in the area, but that only cements its status as one of the must-have Chicago history books.
#4. Division Street: America
I don’t think one can fully appreciate Chicago’s history without reading Studs Terkel. He’s probably better-known as a radio and TV personality, but our own Studs was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who specialized in works of oral social history. Reading his books, especially Division Street: America, is like getting a chance to converse with everyone in the city.
His books are compendiums of interviews that Studs conducted with folks from across all sorts of social, racial, and economic boundaries. People telling their own daily stories in their own words can reveal the lived truth of their historical moment. (It’s a method that recently won a Nobel Prize in Literature for the Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich).
Division Street was the first book that Studs wrote in this style and it remains his most famous. Taking the name of the street literally, Studs traveled down Division Street on the North Side and tried to discover the divisions that animate life in our great metropolis.
#5. The Devil in the White City
It’s impossible not make a holiday gift list of the best Chicago history books without The Devil in the White City. Erik Larson’s National Book Award finalist is probably this century’s most widely-read book about Chicago. And for good reason! Larson is born storyteller who fills the book with novelistic verve and spine-tingling chills. His genius here is to wed the story of the fabled 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with the reign of horror wrought by Chicago-based serial killer H.H. Holmes.
Larson excels at weaving these very different narratives together through thematic resonance. The reader jumps from Burnham and his cohorts while they dream up blueprints for the fair’s buildings to Holmes adding torture chambers (and worse) to his “death castle” only miles away. He subtly suggests that all our plans, be they grand or grisly, spring from the same fount of human genius. It’s a message that reverberates through the intervening decades is scintillating reading.
There’s some other Chicago-centric non-fiction books that I wanted to mention. I haven’t gotten to read some of these and other are not purely history books. But if you see any of these books, don’t hesitate to snap them up.
- The South Side by Natalie Y. Moore
- Young Mr. Obama by Edward McClelland (who we interviewed last year)
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja (a former One Book, One Chicago pick)
- Crook County by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve
- Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology edited by Martha Bayne
- The Space Within by Patrick F. Cannon
While looking for these Chicago history books, we’d love for you to patronize a local, independent bookstore during your holiday shopping. There’s been a depressing number of bookstore closing around Chicago lately, so let’s reverse that tide! There’s a great list of Chicago independent bookstores here.
But we want to give a special shout out to our friends at The Dial. This brand-new indie bookshop is run by the folks from Pilsen Community Books. It just opened up in the Fine Arts Building and is divine. Tell them that Detours sent you!
– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide
ABOUT CHICAGO DETOURS
In business since 2010, Chicago Detours is a passionate team of educators, historians and storytellers. We applied a decade of experience as one of Chicago’s top-rated tour companies to become a virtual event company in 2020. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact on live virtual events of Chicago history, architecture and culture.