One of the great things about organizing the Greatest Ever Chicago Book tournament was seeing how excited people got about it. When we started asking writers we knew if they might be interested in being judges, we were overwhelmed by the response. In the end, we had way more potential judges than judging slots—a couple of writers volunteered to write their own judgments on the final round, just to take part in the conversation.
Funnily enough, although this city is central to both books, it doesn’t quite seem like the focus of either one.
Many of the people Studs talks to in Working live in Chicago, and certainly their accounts give you a feel for the amazing, vibrant diversity of this city and its quirks and particularities—but also a sense of something more universal. Maybe we are all unique snowflakes, but a snowball is a snowball, and there are certain qualities that all big cities share: they’re all an eclectic mix of people, making their way as best they can.
Wilkerson’s history of the forces that fueled the Great Migration and the changes wrought in its wake ranges all over the United States. However, although the process she is describing affected every part of this country, reading about it makes you see Chicago, specifically, in a new light, illuminating dynamics whose consequences are still unfolding today.
This is why I ultimately have to choose The Warmth of Other Suns over Working. Both (fantastic) books tell stories that don’t often get told, and tell them well. But whereas Working makes you feel like you’ve deepened your understanding of this city by getting a glimpse into the lives of some of the people you pass on the street everyday, The Warmth of Other Suns shows you the tectonic plates under the surface. After reading it, you’ll find yourself arguing that anyone else who wants to understand this city will have to read it as well.
There’s a quote that, according to the internet, might be from actor Michael Douglas, but is true nonetheless: “Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work.” I’ve seen it growing up here. I see it now in myself, friends, family. People in this city are always working, and we aren’t working, or aren’t working enough, we’re looking for more work.
The Warmth of Other Suns was a large undertaking for Wilkerson, considering there is no other text that details the Great Migration as she does in this book. This migration helped shape the city into the place it is now.
Though a fantastic read, it’s a book that stretches far beyond Chicago. This city was a big factor in it, but not the only one. Deeming it a “Chicago” book would almost be a disservice—this is a part of American history.
Terkel’s Working stretches far beyond Chicago as well. It gives insight to the conditions and tensions of the American workplace during the 1960s and ‘70s. Most of the interviewees are from around Chicago and the Midwest, but many are also from elsewhere. What they all have in common is their work ethic. The reason why they have the jobs they have is because they had to work, and they keep working. It’s just what they do. It’s what I was taught, and what I see every day in Chicago: an undying work ethic. So when I think “Chicago book,” I have to go with Terkel.