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….


“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.

Read more at Chicago Sun Times.