I make my living, mainly, writing for magazines and newspapers, but books are at the heart of what I do. Most of what I know I learned from books, I write and edit books, I review books for pay, and my closest friends wrote or edited or taught about books.
Here you will find reviews and significant mentions of books about things Illinoisan, along with reflections on the subject of Illinois books in general. Please note that articles about literature and writers and kindred topics not specifically related to books appear under the topic "Arts & culture."
Here also are links to annotated lists of books I’ve found useful over the years. Please note that these lists are far from comprehensive (Chicago in particular is slighted) and have been only haphazardly updated. Among the several lists available, I recommend the selection of Illinois books on Bibliovault, the scholarly online book repository, it being especially good on Chicago books.
What isn't here
As is true of the state itself, there are a lot of out-of-the-way Illinois books. Whether any is worth visiting depends on what you are looking for. Works by genealogists, social engineers, dissertation authors, memoirists, and antiquarians is essential to the process of history-making, but necessarily limited and anyway hard to find. They are joined on a crowded shelf by the usual institutional autobiographies of businesses, churches, colleges, professions (especially medicine and the law), and cities. Too many of these were written by boosters, and some can hardly be said to have been written at all.
Out-of-print and hard-to-find titles from small presses are generally not mentioned here, nor are the many photo collections and works of local history that are local in every sense. (A good example of both is the popular “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing, which includes many Illinois-related titles, and new ones are added all the time.) Even more frustrating is the necessity of ignoring the vast accumulations of maps and newspapers.
Many of the state’s multitude of churches and professional and fraternal associations have histories—the Illinois Farm Bureau has commissioned three—but very few do authors bring the skeptical eye to the job that good history requires. We regretfully omit as too specialized many works on archaeology, wildlife ecology, and geology that Illinois’s diligent scientists have made available to us. A model for the treatment of such topics is Raymond Wiggers' Geology Underfoot in Illinois (Mountain Press, Missoula,1997), whose author accomplished that least likely of feats, writing an interesting book about some of the least interesting geology in the continental U.S.
Other, possibly better lists
Various bibliographies have been compiled over the years to aid the curious reader about Illinois. Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide listed “Fifty Books About Illinois,” most of which are still worth reading, although they are no longer the only fifty such books worth reading. Guide to the History of Illinois, edited by John Hoffman, offers 300 pages of listings and is usefully annotated, but it came out in 1991 and would have to have to have many more pages added to it to be up to date.
More recently, John E. Hallwas has compiled a Bicentennial Reading List for Illinois public libraries for the Illinois State Historical Society. Hallwas is a walking library of Illinois history and literature and has shared what he knows over a long career as teacher and writer. Prominent on Hallwas's list are novels and poetry that illuminate the Illinois experience, a class of works that are a mystery to me.
The unwritten Illinois classics
Finally, a word about what hasn’t been written—yet—about Illinois. Illinois industrialization was more than the Pullman strike and the Haymarket affair, for example, but you would hardly know it by looking at the bookshelves. The contributors to the excellent 1991 A Guide To the History of Illinois, listed a few of the larger holes in the record. Mark A. Plummer pointed out “clear need for a comprehensive history of coal mining in the state, one that uses available studies, investigates new questions, and rationalizes the entire topic”—there still is.
Perry Duis noted the odd fact that the more important events of Chicago’s past, such as the Civil War and the Great Fire, are often the least studied by scholars. Works that make sense of the many specialized studies of that city remain scarce; Duis lists the Progressive era, Chicago culture, and ethnic groups among the topics that need synthesis. About the last, neither the Germans or the Irish of Chicago have comprehensive histories their rich pasts deserve.
Ralph Stone, writing in A Guide To the History of Illinois, agrees that “a thorough work on the Illinois miners would be a signal contribution to national as well as state history.” He adds that there should be much more on the history of women and that quantitative studies of social conditions are wanting. Both lacunae are being filled, but a major investigation of the Chicago/Downstate conflict still is needed. Historian John D. Buenke lamented the fact that Illinois’s size and importance, there is no comprehensive history of the Progressive era in the state.
Hoffman's experts noted too that more studies that compare Illinois history to that of other states and the nation at large should be undertaken. Cullom Davis, in the aforementioned Guide, states, “The full extent of reform and modernization in the Illinois legislature since 1945 needs careful analysis.” Titus M. Karlowicz and Sarah Hanks Karlowicz add, “In studies of the arts in Illinois history, both architecture and music have received more attention than painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts. Moreover, the record for Chicago is far better than that for the state as a whole.”
Then there are the books that were written but which would have languished unpublished had it not been for the yeoman work done by Illinois’s larger university presses in bringing to the public works presumably of durable interest that more commercial houses disdain. The Prairie State Books series published by the University of Illinois Press, for example, includes a wide range of notable titles with helpful introductions. Southern Illinois University Press’s Shawnee Classics series meets the same standard with works of relevance to SIU’s home region.
Illinois books about history
Illinois books about Illinoisans
Illinois books about Abraham Lincoln
Illinois books of fiction and verse
Illinois books about cities and towns
Illinois books about business and labor
Illinois books about education
Illinois books about social life
Illinois books about politics and government