The most recommended books about Illinois

Who picked these books? Meet our 124 experts.

124 authors created a book list connected to Illinois, and here are their favorite Illinois books.
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Book cover of Never Come Morning

Colin Asher Author Of Never a Lovely so Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren

From my list on Works Progress Administration or by WPA authors.

Why am I passionate about this?

While writing Never a Lovely so Real, I fell into many traps. The Federal Writers Project was one of the deepest. Nelson Algren’s time at the project in Chicago saved him from personal and professional ruin. And I became a bit obsessed with the idea that, during the Great Depression, there had been a government program that hired writers by the hundreds and brought them together to work toward a common goal; one that helped shape a literary generation. As I say though, it was a pitfall. Most of what I learned wouldn’t fit in my book, but I’m grateful for all of the writing my research introduced me to.      

Colin's book list on Works Progress Administration or by WPA authors

Colin Asher Why did Colin love this book?

Never Come Morning is Nelson Algren’s second novel and his first great book.  He wrote it during his time with the Federal Writers’ Project in Chicago, between working on a cookbook, a travel guide, and sundry other assignments. In some ways, this book feels of a piece with his first. In some ways, this book feels like a piece with his first. Both books center on alienated young men; both are coming-of-age stories (after a manner). But this novel was a leap forward for Algren. The psychological portrait of its protagonist is fully realized, and the prose sings. Algren had the project to thank for both developments. He used the access his job afforded him to conduct interviews, portions of which made their way into the novel verbatim. And with the projects’ financial support, he was able to revise for months, and months – folding nuance, insight, and poetry into…

By Nelson Algren,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Never Come Morning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Never Come Morning is unique among the novels of Algren. The author's only romance, the novel concerns Brun Bicek, a would-be pub from Chicago's Northwest side, and Steffi, the woman who shares his dream while living his nightmare. "It is an unusual and brilliant book," said The New York Times. "A bold scribbling upon the wall for comfortable Americans to ponder and digest." This new edition features an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and an interview with Nelson Algren by H.E.F. Donohue.

Book cover of Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America's Greatest Pizza Town

Amelia Levin Author Of The Chicago Chef's Table: Extraordinary Recipes from the Windy City

From my list on the magic of Chicago cuisine and food lore.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a longtime food writer, magazine editor, cookbook author, and certified chef (through Kendall College, also in Chicago of course!). I was born in Chicago, raised in the Northern suburbs, and came back right after graduating from the University of Michigan in the early 2000s. For two decades, I lived in various parts of the city and wrote about the food scene for local and national outlets. The first edition of The Chicago Chef’s Table came out in 2012. Even though I moved to the suburbs a few years ago with my growing family, we still get down to the city often to enjoy the hottest new spots. My love for Chicago will never subside!

Amelia's book list on the magic of Chicago cuisine and food lore

Amelia Levin Why did Amelia love this book?

Steve’s headshot is still hanging in both off-the-beaten path and famous restaurants in Chicago having been known as the “Hungry Hound” when he was the premier food reporter for ABC/Channel 7.

He’s now with Channel 5, and he continues to report on lesser-known restaurants and chefs in the city. In fact, he’s made people famous just by his endorsements! That’s why I love his focus on tavern-style pizza. That’s much less talked about than deep dish so there’s lots to learn by this book! 

By Steve Dolinsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pizza City, USA as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are few things that Chicagoans feel more passionately about than pizza. It is the most identifiable food of the city, and neighbors can argue endlessly about who makes the best pie, whether thin crust or deep dish takes the cake, and which essential ingredients are the most important to make up the ideal pizza. With such a broad range of Chicagoland pizzerias, how could anyone ever decide the best of the best, once and for all? Enter Steve Dolinsky, Chicago's very own eminent food journalist and impartial pizza judge extraordinaire. Dolinsky has embarked on a self-described "Pizza Quest," methodically…

Book cover of Die Trying

Cam Torrens Author Of Stable: Someone is Taking Them...

From my list on suspense about veterans solving problems as civilians.

Why am I passionate about this?

When I retired from the service, I wanted to be done with big decisions and just focus on family. I’d had enough war-zone drama. I’m drawn to stories where the veteran finds he/she just can’t do that. My protagonist in my debut, Stable deals with this. He’s overcome so much…the loss of his son, the loss of an aircrew, and years of depression. Now that he’s “back,” he just wants to lead a normal life. I wanted to show you can pull the veteran from the battlefield, but it’s hard to quell his or her desire to continue to serve—and the inherent conflict of service before self or family remains.

Cam's book list on suspense about veterans solving problems as civilians

Cam Torrens Why did Cam love this book?

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Lee Child’s protagonist Jack Reacher.

I recommend his second in the series to start with because that’s when Child started writing the rest of the series in third person as opposed to first.

Die Trying has Reacher witnessing a kidnapping, and ultimately being captured himself. As Reacher and the woman try to outsmart their captors and uncover the truth behind their abduction, the tension never lets up. 

But what really sets this book apart is how Reacher's military background is woven into the fabric of the story, creating a character whose unique perspective, skills, and experience make him an unstoppable force.

By Lee Child,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Die Trying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jack Reacher, alone, strolling nowhere.

A Chicago street in bright sunshine. A young woman, struggling on crutches. He offers her a steadying arm.

And turns to see a handgun aimed at his stomach.

Chained in a dark van racing across America, Reacher doesn't know why they've been kidnapped. The woman claims to be FBI. She's certainly tough enough. But at their remote destination, will raw courage be enough to overcome the hopeless odds?

Book cover of Then We Came to the End

Jinwoo Chong Author Of Flux

From my list on to cure (or rather validate) your post-capitalist malaise.

Why am I passionate about this?

In 2017, I was laid off from my first job out of college, an experience that I think more young people are going through as we move further into an uncertain economic future. That experience formed the basis of my novel, which was published earlier this year. Afterwards, I met a lot of people, most of whom I didn’t know, who told me they’d resonated with the feeling of malaise captured by those first few chapters: of working jobs that seem to be dead ends, wondering if you’ll be here, at this desk, twenty years from now. It’s something most everybody can relate to but doesn't appear in novels nearly as much as it should.

Jinwoo's book list on to cure (or rather validate) your post-capitalist malaise

Jinwoo Chong Why did Jinwoo love this book?

This may be the first book one thinks of when picturing The American Office Novel. It’s one of the older books on this list. It’s also the funniest, and strangest, and the truest.

Centered around a Chicago advertising agency struggling to preserve its relevancy amid the vastly changing media landscape of the 90s and employing one of the only uses of first-person plural that I think works in entirety, this book is a true gem, a marvel that tells a fairly straightforward story that practically vibrates with the amount of beautiful, carefully arranged detail throughout it. 

By Joshua Ferris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Then We Came to the End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No one knows us quite the same way as the men and women who sit beside us in department meetings and crowd the office refrigerator with their labeled yogurts. Every office is a family of sorts, and the ad agency Joshua Ferris brilliantly depicts in his debut novel is family at its strangest and best, coping with a business downturn in the time-honored way: through gossip, pranks, and increasingly frequent coffee breaks. With a demon's eye for the details that make life worth noticing, Joshua Ferris tells a true and funny story about survival in life's strangest environment--the one we…

Book cover of Merchants Bridge

Ellen Barker Author Of East of Troost

From my list on magical books for realists.

Why am I passionate about this?

I write and read realistic fiction. I’m not a fan of fantasy, sci-fi, ghost stories, or magical (other than, you know, Tolkien). I don’t want to have to suspend a lot of belief and buy into an alternate reality. And yet, and yet. . . . All these books have a little element of something going on, and they each grabbed me and kept my attention, and I didn’t roll my eyes once. The supernatural is just a little extra kick and, in every case, as believable as it can possibly be. 

Ellen's book list on magical books for realists

Ellen Barker Why did Ellen love this book?

This one gets all the way to the end before the mysterious creeps in, where it felt completely natural.

I find Trafford’s novels both engrossing and enlightening—genre-merging legal/psychological thrillers that are also thoughtful and literary. I loved the books prior to this one, but this is the one that first introduces a little supernatural healing that was surprising and then . . . good. Intriguing. He carries it forward into the second book of the Dark River series.

The bridge in this book is an actual bridge over an actual river (the Mississippi) connecting Missouri and Illinois at St. Louis. The story is fiction, involving a body that washed up on the Missouri side of the river, which sets the stage for all that follows.

Book cover of The Growing Season: How I Built a New Life--and Saved an American Farm

JQ Rose Author Of Arranging A Dream

From my list on extraordinary life stories about ordinary people.

Why am I passionate about this?

My author friend, Mary, brought her great, great, great + grandfather’s journal to our writers' group and shared excerpts from the pages written in the 1800s. When her grandfather was window shopping in downtown London, he peered into the bookstore window. He yearned to own the books on display, but he couldn’t afford them on a minister’s income. Only the rich could purchase books. The journal excerpts brought the 1800s to life. I decided then to begin recording my life experiences to make our lives today real for the generations of tomorrow. I share my enthusiasm for telling life stories by presenting workshops on how to write life stories. 

JQ's book list on extraordinary life stories about ordinary people

JQ Rose Why did JQ love this book?

My husband, Ted, is a gardening fanatic, so we listened to The Growing Season audiobook together to find out more about vegetable gardening. Instead, we happily discovered the story was about Sarah Frey’s business growing commercial crops rather than a backyard garden. She grew up in Illinois helping her mother deliver cantaloupe to local grocery stores. At 15 years old, when her mother could no longer make the deliveries, Sarah took on the route. I cheered her on as she lived her life with determination and purpose to grow that business for her family. The small route developed into a well-respected family-owned multi-state produce business.

By Sarah Frey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Growing Season as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A gutsy success story” (The New York Times Book Review) about one tenacious woman’s journey to escape rural poverty and create a billion-dollar farming business—without ever leaving the land she loves

The youngest of her parents’ combined twenty-one children, Sarah Frey grew up on a struggling farm in southern Illinois, often having to grow, catch, or hunt her own dinner alongside her brothers. She spent much of her early childhood dreaming of running away to the big city—or really anywhere with central heating. At fifteen, she moved out of her family home and started her own fresh produce delivery business…

Book cover of The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City's Soul

Fergus M. Bordewich Author Of Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction

From Fergus' 3 favorite reads in 2023.

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Historian World traveler Cat lover

Fergus' 3 favorite reads in 2023

Fergus M. Bordewich Why did Fergus love this book?

This is a thrilling account of one of the worst disasters ever to befall an American city, laying waste to 20 percent of the great midwestern metropolis in 1871. Berg vividly brings alive Chicagoans, great and small – poor immigrants, scheming pols, profit-driven businessmen, and unsung local heroes – in a moment of unimaginable crisis. 

Berg is a brilliant narrative writer as well as an acute historian with a masterful eye for detail and penetrating insight into the political rivalries, economic imperatives, and architectural problems that made the city so vulnerable and that shaped its stunningly dynamic recovery.

I have never read a better account of what makes a big city tick.

By Scott W. Berg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Burning of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The "illuminating" (New Yorker) story of the Great Chicago Fire: a raging inferno, a harrowing fight for survival, and the struggle for the soul of a city—told with the "the clarity—and tension—of a well-wrought military narrative" (Wall Street Journal)

In the fall of 1871, Chicagoans knew they were due for the “big one”—a massive, uncontrollable fire that would decimate the city. It had been bone-dry for months, and a recent string of blazes had nearly outstripped the fire department’s already scant resources. Then, on October 8, a minor fire broke out in the barn of Irishwoman Kate Leary. A series…

Book cover of Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's

Charles B. Strozier Author Of Lincoln's Quest for Union

From my list on Abraham Lincoln from a historian and psychoanalyst.

Why am I passionate about this?

I got my first job as a professor of history in 1972 in Springfield, Illinois, at a new university there. What can you do in Springfield except work on Lincoln? The more I read, the more intrigued I became. Lincoln draws you in. His lively mind and always well-written letters, along with his brilliant and memorable speeches, are endlessly fascinating. He also had genuine integrity as a human being and as a leader in our greatest crisis as a country. It is hard not to be inspired by Abraham Lincoln.

Charles' book list on Abraham Lincoln from a historian and psychoanalyst

Charles B. Strozier Why did Charles love this book?

Nothing equals this short introduction to Lincoln’s experience in the 1850s. One gains here an understanding of what Springfield on the urban frontier of America was all about, its muddy streets and yet remarkable collection of politicians like Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. It was truly an Athens on the prairie. Fehrenbacher also masterfully traces the role of circuit riding in Lincoln’s law career throughout the decade, as well as his keen sense of the nation’s crisis over slavery, especially after 1854. The book is very readable and accessible.

By Don E. Fehrenbacher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prelude to Greatness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

" . . . [The] paperback edition of Professor Fehrenbacher's study, first published in 1962, of Lincoln in the 1850s is a welcome reminder of what can be achieved by a fresh and searching investigation of often-asked questions. . . . The book is lucidly and soberly written, and full of carefully considered argument. It is one more major contribution to the work of putting the slavery issue back where it has always belonged--at the very centre--of any discussion of the origins of the Civil War."--Journal of American Studies

"This is a brilliant book. With thorough research . . .…

Book cover of Ordinary People

Monica Starkman Author Of The End of Miracles: A Novel

From my list on good and bad psychiatrists.

Why am I passionate about this?

There are very few novels written by psychiatrists, and even fewer that accurately show psychiatrists at work. That is one of the major reasons that I wrote The End of Miracles. I’ve been a professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, seen many patients, and taught many psychiatry residents, so I know a good deal about people with mental illness and its treatment. As a novelist, I also wanted to write a book that is exciting and gives pleasure to readers. I think I succeeded. Here are some comments from reader reviews online: “gripping”… ”thought-provoking”… ”spell-binding”… ”illuminating”… “a page-turner”… ”a rich and satisfying read”.

Monica's book list on good and bad psychiatrists

Monica Starkman Why did Monica love this book?

In Ordinary People, the boating-accident death of the older teenage son shatters the family.

Conrad, the younger son who was also on the boat, is tormented by self-blame for his brother’s death. After a suicide attempt and a psychiatric hospitalization, Conrad is released. He is still beset with guilt and depression and begins outpatient treatment with Dr. Berger, a blunt yet also an empathetic psychiatrist.

I like the way he helps Conrad reconsider his unrealistic guilt and helps him look at the limitations of his mother, a parent unable to provide him the warmth and support he needs. I like the way Dr. Berger is portrayed as caring and skilled, an example of how psychiatrists effectively treat their patients.

By Judith Guest,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ordinary People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the great bestseller of our time: the novel that inspired Robert Redford's Oscar-winning film starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore

In Ordinary People, Judith Guest's remarkable first novel, the Jarrets are a typical American family. Calvin is a determined, successful provider and Beth an organized, efficient wife. They had two sons, Conrad and Buck, but now they have one. In this memorable, moving novel, Judith Guest takes the reader into their lives to share their misunderstandings, pain, and ultimate healing. Ordinary People is an extraordinary novel about an "ordinary" family divided by pain, yet bound by their…

Book cover of Dandelion Wine

Kim M. Watt Author Of Baking Bad

From my list on the humour, confusion, and beauty of being human.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on, but my main loves have always been fantasy and sci-fi. Not so much because of the strange worlds their doors open onto, but because of what they tell us about being human. Because humans are odd and strange and beautiful and full of magic, and it seems more important than ever that we remember that. And not just remember it, but celebrate it, especially as it relates to those of us that are a little different and out of the ordinary. So I hunt out books that remind me how special it is to simply be delightfully, weirdly human. I hope you enjoy them!

Kim's book list on the humour, confusion, and beauty of being human

Kim M. Watt Why did Kim love this book?

A mix of coming of age in the first half of the twentieth century, and Bradbury’s peculiar brand of very earthly oddness and sci-fi strangeness, Dandelion Wine is full of all sorts of magic. It reminds you of what it is to be a small human again, when everything seems possible, and aliens and monsters are as likely (and as important) as long summer days spent outside, barefoot and sunburnt and a little feral. Even when we don’t recognise the details of the childhood described, we remember the feeling, and it reawakens a sense of wonder that’s incredibly precious.

By Ray Bradbury,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Dandelion Wine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dandelion Wine is a 1957 semi-autobiographical novel by Ray Bradbury, taking place in the summer of 1928 in the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois — a pseudonym for Bradbury's childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois. The novel developed from the short story "Dandelion Wine" which appeared in the June 1953 issue of Gourmet magazine.