EDITORIAL: Best Chicago book ever? We asked the folks running for mayor

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SHARE EDITORIAL: Best Chicago book ever? We asked the folks running for mayor

“The Jungle” and “The Devil in the White City” win, hands down, as the favorite two Chicago books of the candidates for mayor.

“The Jungle” was picked by three candidates, and “The Devil in the White City” was picked by four.

Good choices both, we’d say.

Nothing beats “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair, as an expose of the unbridled industrialism that built this city for good and for evil, making a small club of fat cats rich while armies of working people struggled to survive. If you believe Sinclair, more than a few stockyard workers fell into the lard vats, where they lost body parts that went out into the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard.

“The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson, strikes a cheerier note, at least in the parts about how the brilliant Daniel H. Burnham created one of the most magnificent world’s fairs ever, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. But the uplifting stuff is inter-spliced with the story of a psychotic serial killer, giving the book an unsettling balance. Chicago is complicated that way.

In an Editorial Board questionnaire we sent to 18 candidates running for mayor, that was our final question — name a favorite Chicago book. Specifically, we asked: Other than “Boss” (because everybody says “Boss”) what’s the best book ever written about Chicago, nonfiction or fiction. There are no wrong answers, of course, so we hope you’ll have some fun.

Almost all the answers we got back — 14 candidates replied — were thoughtful, and they all revealed something about the candidates, which is the value of such a question. What people read, or don’t read, says something.


We certainly think Lori Lightfoot, for example, should consider teaching English Lit on the side, whether she wins this election or not. Her choice of Stuart Dybek’s short story collection, “The Coast of Chicago,” was unexpected and welcomed, and her take on the book — that Dybek “did a wonderful job painting pictures of his youth and neighborhood that are so quintessentially Chicago, but it’s also universal about young people trying to find their way” — struck us as exactly right.

La Shawn K. Ford’s comment about Alex Kotlowitz’ book about kids growing up in public housing, “There Are No Children Here,” also jumped out at us as especially well said: “We need good stories combined with hard truths.”

And we appreciated Bill Daley’s droll response to our instruction to choose any book except “Boss,” Mike Royko’s take-down of Bill’s dad, Mayor Richard J. Daley. “Don’t worry,” Bill Daley wrote. “I was not planning to say ‘Boss.’ ”

Here are the candidates’ picks for a favorite Chicago book, presented in the order we received them:


“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair


I remember doing a research project in grammar school about Chicago’s stockyards. One of the books that I read was “The Jungle,” and I truly enjoyed the historical references throughout the book. I am a big fan of history, and the fact that I grew up not far from where the stockyards once stood added to the excitement as I read about Chicago’s history.


“City of Scoundrels,” by Gary Krist; and “The Coast of Chicago,” by Stuart Dybek


When I was younger, I thought seriously about being a history professor, then I worried about getting a paying job after all that schooling. I decided to be a lawyer instead, but my love of history has never diminished. That explains my choice of “City of Scoundrels,” a complicated historical account of Chicago that very few know about. The time period in the book depicts the city as it was very much in transition into the modern age. I thought Gary Krist did a very good job interweaving a number of micro and macro stories lines to detail a teeming city at a critical time in its history. And truly, it has a little bit of everything — race, class, industrial advances, machine politics, etc. A good read.

As for Stuart Dybek’s work, I heard him read from the collection when the book was chosen as part of the One Book, One Chicago series. I have found that hearing an author’s voice reading from his work, the cadence and inflections, give particular insights into the written word that you would not otherwise get. After I heard him speak, I bought Dybek’s collection and other work. In this short story collection, I thought he did a wonderful job painting pictures of his youth and neighborhood that are so quintessentially Chicago, but also universal about young people trying to find their way as their individual lives evolve while in some ways the world around them both changes and stays the same. Dybek’s writing is spare but conjures engaging visual images.


“Chicago: City of the Century,” by Donald L. Miller


This is the book that best shows what a truly amazing role Chicago has played in the history of the world. Chicago was — and still is — a major center of innovation that has produced incalculable good for all of humanity. I think the only thing currently holding us back is a political industrial complex that is heavily dependent on the “pay to play” system and has to put preservation of the status quo ahead of effective city management and the long-term planning needed to ensure the city and our children a brighter future.


“American Pharaoh,” by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor


“American Pharaoh” is a great book about Chicago’s roots and how they have affected our current political landscape. As a former history teacher, I love the political history genre, and this one is exceptionally well-written.”


“The Haymarket Affair: The History of the Riot in Chicago that Galvanized the Labor Movement,” by Charles River Editors


Few things were as controversial during the late 19th century as the Haymarket Affair. Depending on one’s perspective, the riots and the violence that ensued were the result of anarchist terrorists attacking law enforcement authorities with a homemade bomb that was detonated during a large public event, killing a police officer and wounding several more. Or, in a view more sympathetic to the plight of the people protesting for better working conditions that night in Haymarket Square, it was a peaceful rally marred by a heavy-handed response.

Workers and those advocating on their behalf were galvanized by the events to push for what they thought to be much-needed reforms, many of which would come over the next few decades. As professor William J. Adelman put it, “No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today.” This is a great book. It captures an embarrassing day in Chicago’s history, but also speaks to how an event like this changed the lives of many.


“Plan of Chicago,” by Daniel Burnham


I have several copies of the Burnham’s Plan of Chicago, and I regularly look back at them. He was a visionary planner, and I got my start in government in the Planning Department of City Hall. So many of the great things we take for granted in our city came from Burnham’s Plan. I encourage every Chicagoan to read the Plan at least once; you will be amazed to learn that many of the streets in Chicago today are still following his plan.


“The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City” by Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Daniel Cooper; and “There Are No Children Here,” by Alex Kotlowitz.


We need good stories combined with hard truths.

“The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City,” speaks to why I decided to run for mayor. Chicago is known as a tale of two cities, and this book gives a detailed explanation of why there are starkly different realities in many West and South side neighborhoods compared to other places in and around the city. It lays out the ways in which decades of harsh justice-system policies have harmed generations of families and led to disinvestment and less public safety. For example, in just a five-year period we sentenced 6,700 people from the Austin neighborhood to prison, compared to just 311 in nearby Oak Park (which I also represent in Springfield). Removing so many parents from the lives of young people has had devastating consequences for families and neighborhoods. As mayor, I want to see more investment in human and community development, and much less punishment.

“There are No Children Here” was important for me because I was born in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, which were very similar to the Henry Horner housing projects in which this book is set. When I was a social studies teacher in the Chicago Public Schools on the Northwest Side, it was required reading for my seventh- and eighth-grade students. I remember the very real and profound discussions we had about this book — and the hope that things could be totally different, and the expectation that it would be one day.


“The 20 Incredible Years,” by William Stuart; and “Eagle Forgotten,” by Harry Barnard.


“The 20 Incredible Years” is a fascinating, in-depth account of the pivotal period in Chicago’s history. It does a great job of capturing the interplay between politics and government and is a testament to the adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I first read “Eagle Forgotten” while taking a college seminar course on Chicago history. I reread this biography of Illinois Gov. John Peter Altgeld, with greater interest, after reading the elegy, “The Eagle That Is Forgotten,” by Vachel Lindsay. Altgeld displayed the rare combination of courage and judgment seldom found in famous political leaders. Among his first acts in office as governor was to undertake a review of the convictions of the three remaining men convicted in the Haymarket Square bombing. This review led him to pardon the three, fully aware that the act of pardoning would doom his political fate. This act of political courage, against self-interest, is but one example of the many good traits exhibited by this man of humble beginnings who emigrated to our country as an infant and became governor of Illinois.


“The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson


Awesome. Couldn’t put it down. Needed eye drops to soothe the redness in my eyes from lack of sleep from staying up too late reading it.


“The Devil In the White City,” by Erik Larson; “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair; and “The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition” (Revised edition), edited by Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli


It’s a three-way tie.


“What Shall I Do Next, When I Don’t Know Next What To Do?” by Dr. Willie Wilson


The book is about the personal trials, tribulations and triumphs of a black man who came from very, very humble beginnings, with all odds against him, only to rise up (through self-determination, tenacity and perseverance) and become a multi-millionaire. Never to forget those humble beginnings nor his traditional southern upbringing, he chooses to live his life by Christian principles of blessing those less fortunate.

Not a perfect man, he deals with his own personal struggles and breath-taking tragedy, he pulls himself up (as he has done his ENTIRE life) and continues to push forward, with the help of God, to live an inspirational and influential life.


“American Pharaoh,” by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor


This book chronicles the rise and reign of Mayor Richard J. Daley, warts and all. It was a different time, and the authors do a thorough job presenting a biography of a man whose decisions led to many achievements but also to many of the problems we still face today of a racially and economically divided city. “American Pharaoh” is a must-read for anyone who Ioves this city and wants to better understand how we arrived where we are today.


“The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson; and “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair


And don’t worry, I was not planning to say “Boss.”


“The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson


Even though this story is set in a period more than a century ago, much of the same problems persist in Chicago, including corrupt politics, editorializing, murder and rampant crime.


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