- Sue Kwong
This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.
In this week’s contest, round one, bout six, Jake Austen, a journalist, editor of Roctober, host of Chic-A-Go-Go, and coauthor of Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, has to decide between two heavyweights: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, a work so enormous it cannot be contained by mere binding, and Studs Terkel’s massive Working. To see the results of previous bouts, look here.
When diving into a contest as subjective, meaningless, and silly as a book battle it’s important to define terms. Most significant in this particular skirmish is deciding if we are we making a determination of the Greatest Ever Chicago Book or the Greatest Ever Chicago Book. Are these head-to-head scuffles settled upon which Chicago-associated volume is a greater work, or which great work is the most Chicago-ish? In this heavyweight bout (pardon the mixed sports metaphor, Final Four fans) between Studs Terkel‘s 590 pages of Working and Building Stories, Chris Ware’s bookshelf-challenging box of goodies, depending on which rules you play by, very different books could hoist the trophy.
Despite being very different—a collection of short interviews with dozens of workers about the miseries and joys of jobs versus an elaborately designed graphic novel about habitually heavyhearted residents of a Chicago brownstone—the pairing makes sense. Not only are these both works of ambitious scale, both challenge traditional reading formats. Ware’s book, which consists of more than a dozen printed works, including homages to Sunday comics sections, board games, and Little Golden Books, achieves unity by having its segments fit together narratively regardless of the order in which they are read. Terkel’s collection is broken up into nine “books,” 29 subsections, and more than 100 short interviews. One is invited to flip through and read as much or little as desired; the heft of the book even suggests one can pick it up like a Bible to seek guidance from its passages. More importantly for our purposes, both books are very much tied to Chicago, not in content so much (Chicago workers are overrepresented, but not exclusive in Working, and a Brooklyn brownstone setting would not have profoundly altered the Building Stories story), but in the ways the authors have embraced the city they inhabit.
Were we determining which author is more Chicago-ish, it would be no contest. Though neither was born in the city, Terkel moved here as an child, qualifying him for “What parish?/What high school?/Who sent ya?” residency standards. More importantly, just look at him! As teens, my future wife and I snuck into the Eight Men Out movie premiere downtown, and I recall watching Studs (surrounded by White Sox ephemera) artlessly demolish a hot dog then laugh with cronies as Vienna Beef bits flew. It felt like I was freebasing Chicago-ism.
But despite a more genteel demeanor, Ware has declared through his art a profound allegiance to his adopted city. Memory, history, and the passage of time are crucial in almost all Ware’s works, particularly so in this book. He frequently achieves this by masterfully evoking century-old design principles, which harken back to the days when Rand McNally, the Chicago Playing Card Company, and countless other local catalog, encyclopedia, magazine, and game producers prided themselves on meticulous design, sturdy illustrations, and a tasteful approach to the ornate. More crucially, I’ve always contended that the graceful, clean, sound construction of each rock-solid page of comics Ware produces is inspired by the city’s post-Chicago fire architecture. That his masterwork is an overt celebration of our beautiful brick palaces makes such assertions seem less bullshitty.
No bullshit is required to connect Terkel to his town. There is certainly a joy in picking up Working to read about the more unusual jobs (jockey, yacht salesman, grave digger) or celebrities (Rip Torn, Pauline Kael, a Chicago Blackhawk), and there’s no denying Terkel looked to New York for samples of some iconic gigs (cop, fireman, hooker). But the heart of the book is a complex dance celebrating and lamenting the challenging professional lives of the kind of workers that earned Chicago its “City that Works” sobriquet. There’s the CTA driver battling ulcers, the Loop barber dealing with the longhair fad, the Palmer House washroom attendant nervously avoiding the subject of mob involvement in his industry. There’s the white welder at the south-side Ford assembly plant explaining how the foremen put workers of different races next to each other knowing racism would keep them from socializing, thus increasing productivity. And there’s that worker’s black assembly line neighbor whose bold response to management’s abuses inspired his coworkers, white and black, to briefly unite against unfair labor conditions. The latter figure is certainly a nod to Terkel’s lefty leanings, and one could criticize the book as propaganda for labor or hear a sameness in voices resulting from Terkel’s curatorial and editorial decisions. But like its subjects, fascinating in both their individuality and their normalcy, the book’s flaws are outweighed by its strength of character.
Despite all the ways Working works, ultimately Building Stories is a far superior work of art. The Duchamp-inspired boxed collection is a wonder, and the story, which has the male writer conjuring a fully realized female protagonist, is rich. I’ve heard Ware criticized for being precious and maudlin, but I challenge anyone to contest the sincerity of his preciousness and maudlin-ness. Building Stories is certainly a better book than Working.
But there are already a lot of awards for being a great book. I believe this is a contest to discover the work of literature that best captures Chicago’s essence. Thus, the nod of the construction helmet has to go to a book that deeply explores perhaps the most important Chicago archetype: the man doing an honest day’s work in a corrupt town, the big-shouldered being who gives the city its nickname, the Slats Grobnik/Jurgis Rudkus/Augie March working his ass off. That the book is as dedicated to deflating the myth of noble hard work as it is celebrating the worker makes it even more impressive. Chris Ware may be the more gifted artist, but Studs Terkel’s talents as a celebrator of Chicago’s everymen and everywomen is unmatched. And he could eat the hell out of a hot dog.
Working was the clear favorite among voters, with 59 percent of votes. Round two begins January 13.
- Sue Kwong