The best books about Illinois

40 authors have picked their favorite books about Illinois and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

By Erik Larson,

Why this book?

When I was a kid, I loved history but hated history books. My favorite way to learn about the past was to read well-written historical novels. That was before Erik Larson landed on the literary scene. His books are as compelling as fiction, but they are entirely true. In The Devil in the White City, Larson tells the rollicking, tumultuous, and sordid story of the Chicago World Fair in 1893 through the eyes of the architects and savants whose genius brought the fair to life in the face of impossible odds and through the eyes of the Jekyll-and-Hyde businessman-cum-serial…

From the list:

The best true stories that are as fun to read as fiction

Book cover of Chicago's Grand Midway: A Walk around the World at the Columbian Exposition

Chicago's Grand Midway: A Walk around the World at the Columbian Exposition

By Norman Bolotin,

Why this book?

Since the Midway was not on the official fairgrounds, it isn’t always discussed in detail in books about the Columbian Exposition/World’s Fair. This book focuses solely on the Midway and includes the background on all the attractions from Mr. Ferris’s Wheel to Cairo Street to Old Vienna, along with photographs and a map.

From the list:

The best books about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Book cover of Spectacle in the White City: The Chicago 1893 World's Fair

Spectacle in the White City: The Chicago 1893 World's Fair

By Stanley Appelbaum,

Why this book?

This gorgeous coffee table book jam-packed with full-size photographs from every angle of the Fair. There is enough text to explain what the reader is looking at, but the glory of this volume is the photography. The map at the front is one of the best I’ve found, as well.

From the list:

The best books about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair

Book cover of Division Street: America

Division Street: America

By Studs Terkel,

Why this book?

The oral historian and radioman Studs Turkel takes us around American without leaving his Chicago via Division Street America. Sparsely contextualized by his interstitial commentary, Turkel exercises his embracing interviewing skills to bring poignant stories of the non-celebrity class into sharp, relevant focus. This same type of unornamented approach earned a Nobel Prize in literature for Belarussian journalist Svetlana Alexievich and her Chernobyl.

From the list:

The best books to understand the America between New Jersey and Oakland

Book cover of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

By William Cronon,

Why this book?

Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, explains how Chicago grew up in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding rural states. He argues that environmental historians have got to be as interested in cities as they are in the wilderness and that one of the central themes of American history is the transformation of things that grow (including animals and plants) into abstract commodities that can be bought and sold in bulk. No one has done more than Cronon to advance the intelligent study of environmental history and to create for it a sophisticated theoretical framework. This book is…

From the list:

The best books to understand American environmental history

Book cover of The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy

The Sinking of the Eastland: America's Forgotten Tragedy

By Jay Bonansinga,

Why this book?

Jay Bonansinga is best known as a horror writer – he took over the Walking Dead novels when Robert Kirkman “handed him the keys to the Jaguar”, as Jay charmingly puts it. He brings that visceral immediacy and intensity to his nonfiction as well. This is his book on the sinking of the Eastland as it was being loaded with passengers for a picnic excursion. On July 24, 1915, this tragedy claimed more lives than the Chicago Fire. Nearly 10,000 people could only stand by and watch helplessly as the overloaded Eastland rolled, righted itself, then counterbalanced and rolled to…

From the list:

The best nonfiction books that read like a novel

Book cover of Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect

By Robert J. Sampson,

Why this book?

Rob Sampson has compiled the most comprehensive dataset ever to document the existence multiple inequalities across neighborhoods in major urban area and how they create unequal social worlds by race and class that serve to perpetuate inequality over time.

From the list:

The best books on how neighborhoods perpetuate inequality

Book cover of The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther

By Jeffrey Haas,

Why this book?

The era of COINTELPRO and Black Power is filled with stories that can become muddier to tease out as more gets revealed. Not Fred Hampton’s story  —  this was clear-cut, brutal FBI and Chicago police overreach to silence dissent. Haas’s book offers a firsthand account by an attorney who helped dig out the facts, and preserved the poignancy of what it felt like to experience the events.

From the list:

The best books on Black protest and government resistance

Book cover of Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

By Mike Royko,

Why this book?

There’s nothing about the blues or indeed any music at all in this. Mike Royko might well have been a blues fan, but he was primarily one of the best political columnists of the era, working for Chicago’s Daily News, Sun-Times, and Tribune from the Sixties through to the Nineties, and winning a Pulitzer Prize. His forensic account of the corrupt, scandal-prone but invincible party machine run by Mayor Daley, who had just been re-elected for his fifth term in office when the book came out in 1971, is merciless, shocking, and often hilarious. To a young outsider like…

From the list:

The best books about the blues, Chicago, and the Chicago blues

Book cover of Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power

Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power

By Simon Balto,

Why this book?

Balto explores how the Chicago police, from 1910 to the 1970s “built an intricate, powerful carceral machinery whose most constitutive feature was an extreme racial selectivity.” Black people are over-policed and under-protected. Balto focuses on policing and anti-blackness. Black Chicagoans’ complaints of torture and “aggressive prevention patrol” by the police went on for decades and was essentially ignored by those in power. Balto tells the story of a racially repressive police force. In two decades, from 1945 to 1965 the Chicago police grew more punitive as the department doubled in size. Black communities were targeted by the CPD, in large…
From the list:

The best books on race and policing

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