Things To Do While Self-Isolating in Chicago: Part 5 — Great Chicago Reads

With tens of millions of Americans suddenly forced to work from home, to stay at home, and to confront the general cleanliness of their homes; this seems like a good time to discuss things to do while self-isolated in Chicago.

Chicago skyline

The dilemma: You’re sheltering in place and confined to your
home just as spring arrives and blooming flowers and trees beckon you to
experience Chicago’s myriad sights, sounds and smells. What to do?

A good option is reading one of the excellent books and narratives about the city. There’s an embarrassment of riches when you begin looking at Chicago and the written word. Fear not—we’ve honed the list down to 10 great reads about the city and its architecture.

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul

This tour of Chicago was written by Karen Abbott and illustrated by photographer Charles Osgood. It’s a favorite of Chicago street photographer Rich Kolar. “It’s about the Everleigh Sisters and their ‘gentlemen entertainment establishment,’” Kolar says.

Sidewalks – Portraits of Chicago

Another Osgood book recommended by Kolar. “It’s a whole collection of the people who live and work in the neighborhoods of Chicago. You really don’t know Chicago until who know the neighborhoods.”

Chicago: City on the Make

The Nelson Algren narrative comes recommended by Roosevelt University professor Vince Cyboran. It presents 120 years of local history, including the Black Sox scandal, and even long-forgotten local slang.

Sara Paretsky Series

Another recommendation by Professor Cyboran, the Paretsky mystery novels are set in Chicago and feature a private investigator named V. I. Warshawski.

Devil In The White City

The spellbinding semi-fictional historical novel by Erik Larson is set in 1893 Chicago. It uses true tales of Daniel Burnham, the architect behind the Plan of Chicago and the World Columbian Exposition; and Dr. H. H. Holmes, a pharmacist and serial killer who lured his victims to their deaths in his elaborately constructed “Murder Castle.”

Broken Glass

This is a new book by Alex Beam about Mies van der Rohe and the strange case of the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. If you think your apartment or house doesn’t have enough closet space, consider Edith Farnsworth. Mies’ original design had NO closets. Said van der Rohe, “It’s a weekend house. You only need one dress. Hang it on a hook on the back of the bathroom door.”

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America

This book by Donald L. Miller is the story of the emergence of modern America. It traces the beginning of the city, its politics, growth and disasters like the cholera epidemics and the Great Chicago Fire.

Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago

Author Alex Kotlowitz looks at the soul of the city by introducing the reader to some of its most interesting residents. Kotlowitz was not a native Chicagoan, but he found a home here and saw how the city was a refuge of sorts for other outsiders.

Division Street

The Studs Terkel oral history, like Kotlowitz’s account of the city, is based on life stories and personal interviews with 70 residents. Some are rich, others poor, but every one of them has a fascinating tale.

The Chicago Architects Oral History Project

The CAOHP began in 1983 by the Art Institute’s Department of Architecture. The idea was to record the life experiences of architects who shaped the physical environment in Chicago and surrounding communities. You can access the vast library here.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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