3 Great Books Set in Chicago

Want to read books that showcase Chicago?  Read these 3 books before you go.

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Books abound that were written about the city, good and bad, true and not.  History is everywhere you go here, but not in the same way it is on the East Coast where “history” means hundreds of years old.  Chicago’s history is still in the making.

Here are three books that will give you a perfect introduction to Chicago.

There is Mystery in our History

You cannot visit Chicago without hearing about The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson.  The book brings to life a city recovering from the Great Fire of 1871 while building a completely new city for the 1893 World’s Fair, amidst a mysterious circumstance of women going missing. 

I love to walk through the Museum of Science and Industry, which is the last standing building from the Fair, and imagine what it would have been like to experience this incredible White City.  I drive down the Midway Plaisance, thinking of how it was a pathway through worlds Americans never imagined existed, all to end up at this perfect, white, city.  It is not lost on me the Plaisance is now surrounded by neighborhoods that currently ache for reinvestment, as the Obama Presidential Library starts a new development the area.

Plot Twist Tip: If you like audiobooks, The Devil in the White City is the best audiobook I’ve ever heard.  The narrator, Scott Brick, nails the suspense and drama as the story unfolds.

Novel Neighborhoods

One of my favorite bookstores in the city is Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore in the Andersonville neighborhood. I used to live just three blocks away from the store and was a member of one of their book clubs for a few years.  Andersonville is full of great local businesses, excellent food, and large, friendly houses. Andersonville is where I would imagine The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was conceived. 

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a love story focused on a couple who meet when Henry time-travels and runs into Claire, a young girl who eventually becomes his wife.  This story has hints of sci-fi, full of love and heartbreaking moments as Henry pops in and out of his non-linear life. This book is full of emotion at every moment, and reminds me of Andersonville not only because I read it while I lived there, but also because the neighborhood is quintessential Chicago, which is a character as well in the story.  Andersonville has cozy streets with beautiful houses of every classic Chicago style, fantastic local restaurants (one of my favorites: Big Jones), and that one beer spot that has more options than you will ever know what to do with.  

Get to Know Your Politicians

Chicago is well known for being the “windy city.”  Chicagoans understand the “wind” doesn’t come off the lake but instead from the wind the politicians tend to blow when they speak.  Chicago has a rough political history, full of political gangsters (both old school Al Capone types, as well as modern day ones like Alderman Edward Burke). If you want to learn about the seedy political history of Chicago, American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor is a must-read.  Chicago’s history of corruption is well documented here in this non-fiction accounting of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s administration.  Mayor Daley’s work laid the groundwork for what the City of Chicago is today, for better and for worse.

My Chicago TBR List (To Be Read)

There is so much to learn about this city and its past.  I keep a running list of “to be read” (TBR) books, as well as authors who live in the city and write stories that take place in Chicago. Take a look at the list and tell me, what else should we read?

  • Twenty Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams (local SHEro)
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (classic novel about Chicago stockyards)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright (classic book about poverty and the black experience on the south side)
  • Working by Studs Terkel (a collection of interviews of Chicagoans)
  • City of the Century by Donald L. Miller (recommended read for any scholar of Chicago history)
  • The Lake on Fire by Rosellen Brown (another 1893 World’s Fair story)
  • Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott (story of the Everleigh Club, a famous brothel in Chicago)
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (story by a Chicagoan that takes place in 1980’s Chicago during the AIDS epidemic)

Have you ever read a book that takes place in Chicago?  What kind of impression of the city did the book give you? Leave a comment below about it!

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