What is the ultimate Chicago book?

From the guy who asked it: ‘You name it. One book!’

May 7, 2013

Curious Citizen Pavel Gigov asked a question a few months ago that might have been answered in Rachel Shteir's recent New York Times Book Review article. Pavel wants to know which single book could teach him the most about Chicago. In Shteir's infamous review of three recent books about Chicago, she gave short shrift to the city's literary context, instead focusing on myriad problems plaguing "Poor Chicago." Nearly three weeks out and, with our collective ire down to simmering, now is as good a time as any to answer Pavel's question.

To start off, we reached out to someone who’s at least familiar with the theme: Annie Tully, who directs the One Book, One Chicago program at the Chicago Public Library. After huddling with library staff and consulting their master lists, she sent us a list of titles that could potentially fit the bill for Pavel. That list, produced below, includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children's literature and graphic novels. While The Encyclopedia of Chicago contains a lot of facts about the city, Chicago Poems by Carl Sandberg may convey more essential truths. Could Gwendolyn Brooks’ Bronzeville Boys and Girls be more instructive than Mike Royko's early columns?

Of course we can't settle on one book to define Chicago, because there are as many “Chicagos” as there are Chicagoans. Rachel Shteir would certainly have a different choice (possibly Sister Carrie) than Neil Steinberg. But that just means we get to have a conversation about our choices and hopefully understand more about the vast array of different Chicagos.

So please choose a book from this list that best explains Chicago as you understand it. If your choice isn't listed, please add it. Maybe Rick Kogan's Dr. Night Life should be included, who knows? We'll talk about the top five books next Monday on Morning Shift.

Andrew Gill is a WBEZ web producer. Follow him @andrewgill.