by John T. Sjaw
Editor’s Note: This editorial was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Several years ago, the staff at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute was preparing for the Illinois Renewal Summit for college and university students, and we wanted to provide them with suggested readings about Illinois.
I checked my bookshelves at the institute and jotted down the titles of various books on the history and politics of the state. I then called several colleagues and asked if they had any recommendations, phrasing my request this way: “If you were studying Illinois 101 for highly motivated undergraduates, what five books would you dedicate for them to read? They could be histories, biographies, or novels.” or articles. In short, they will provide a broad and diverse understanding of Illinois.”
I decided to pose this question to some of Illinois’s respected leaders and analysts, including US Senator Richard Durbin, former Governor Jim Edgar, Illinois Speaker of the House Chris Welch, former US Secretary of Transportation Ray Hood, and former Lt. Sheila Simon. They made inspiring and humble recommendations – inspiring in the sense that many compelling books underscore the richness and diversity of our country and humility in that it reminds me of how many important books I have to read!
Recommendations included biographies of Illinois political leaders such as Paul Douglas, Everett Derricksen, Richard Ogilvy, Carol Mosley Brown, Robert Michel, and Adlai Stevenson. They also revealed a deep fascination with Chicago Mayor Richard Daly and one of his successors, Harold Washington.
Respondents promoted two public histories of the state: “Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People” by Roger Beals and “Illinois: A History of the Prairie State” by Robert Howard. Two records from the Chicago Chronicles are frequently recommended: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon and “City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America” by Donald Miller. There was also a clear interest in regional history around central and southern Illinois and around two legendary communities, Cahokia and Casskia.
Survey respondents praised the work of prominent Illinois literary stars Carl Sandberg, Gwendolyn Brooks and Theodore Dreiser as well as famous Illinois presidents and writers, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.
As director of the Paul Simon Institute for Public Policy, I was grateful to see many of Paul Simon’s books that recommended “Lincoln’s Prepare for Greatness”, “Our Pimping Culture” and “The Hero of Freedom: Elijah Lovejoy.”
The institute compiled the recommendations into a pamphlet called “Illinois 101,” which we sent to libraries, civic groups, and government officials across the state. If you would like a copy, email us at email@example.com and we will be happy to mail you.
Inspired by this interest in Illinois literature, the Institute launched the Illinois Authors Program where we host talks with writers about the state. So far, we’ve had conversations with Robert Hartley, journalist and historian, about his biography of Paul Simon and Paul Powell; Kristen Hoganson, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, for her book Heart of the Earth: An American History; And Margo Jefferson, Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, for her book Negroland: A Memoir.
Our conversations with these wonderful authors were extensive and stimulating. They’ve been on Zoom, but now that COVID-19 has eased, we’re eager to host Illinois authors’ discussions in person across the state.
We invite everyone to send us the titles of their favorite books about Illinois and recommend authors we should consider inviting for future discussions. Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope you will join me this year in reading wonderful and valuable books about our country. You might also consider starting a book club in Illinois or focusing your current book club reading on titles related to Illinois. Such reading adds nuance, color, and perspective to our vision of Illinois and fosters a greater appreciation for the legacy of those who came before us. I hope this reading and inspiring discussion will lead us all to do more to rejuvenate and revitalize the Prairie State.
John T. Shaw is director of the Paul Simon Institute for Public Policy at Southern Illinois University. Shaw’s monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better policies and smarter government.
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