Zach Dodson is the cofounder of Featherproof Books, an independent publisher of fiction based in Chicago. His hybrid typo/graphic novel, boring boring boring boring boring
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Thinking of literary places in Chicago invites nostalgia. For this roundup I was tempted to fall back on some old clichés, to ride Stuart Dybek’s El, or trace the footsteps of Nelson Algren or Studs Terkel as they canvassed seedy neighborhoods for stories. But these mythologies really have nothing to do with what’s going on in the Chicago lit world these days, so instead I asked myself: Where do I experience literary Chicago? The answer: mostly bars. Other writers might do the same—drinking with friends and rambling about books for hours. But in Chicago, bars are also the settings for many of the city’s best readings. The number of dynamic series is now so large it’s hard to keep track. When readings started to slant toward entertainment (a backlash against “boring readings”) a pressure cooker was created here, and series began to employ varied themes and devices, all meant to ensure that attendees of readings in Chicago have fun. So I thought I’d take a look at where this fun takes place, a pub crawl of the Chicago literary landscape, with a few stopovers along the way.
Reading Series and Venues
The Hideout (1354 West Wabansia Avenue) has been a longtime host to some of the most raucous literary energy in Chicago. The bar is appropriately named, tucked back in an industrial district next to a truck parking lot, and in an area so devoid of life you might think anyone who takes you back there intends something sinister. But, as it turns out, this is the perfect place to throw a party. Literary series hosted by the bar include: Ian Belknap’s Write Club, a monthly literary brawl that pits two writers on opposing themes (for example, Mind vs. Body or Fight vs. Flight) in a boxing-style match-up; and Shame That Tune, from Brian Costello, author of The Enchanters vs. Sprawlburg Springs (Featherproof Books, 2006), and Abraham Levitan, frontman for the band Baby Teeth, where writers read their most embarrassing stories set to music.
Among your other boozy choices are the RUI: Reading Under the Influence series—“because everyone needs a literary hangover.” RUI, which asks participants to take shots of alcohol before, during, and after the readings and to take a pub quiz on the literary theme of the month, has been turning a packed room at Sheffield’s (3258 North Sheffield Avenue)—a great place for barbeque in the beer garden—into a slurring, hilarious mess for the last four years.
The Encyclopedia Show, cofounded in 2008 by poets Shanny Jean Maney and Robbie Q. Telfer, is a twist on another tried and tired medium: slam poetry. Though they hook some of the best-known performers of that genre—HBO Def Poets Tim Stafford and Joel Chmara among them—the Encyclopedia Show revels in modest nerdery. Each month Maney and Telfer pick a new topic—past subjects have included punctuation, the periodic table of elements, and the Village of Schaumburg—and dole out encyclopedia-article assignments to a diverse group of novice and notable talents. Backed by a house band, the Encartagans, and a fact-checker, who is on hand to weigh in on veracity, performers read the new entries they created for each topic. The show takes place at Stage 773 (1225 West Belmont Avenue), which gives it an appropriate air of staginess—grand and silly. Always able to pack the house, the Encyclopedia Show has been so successful it has spawned offshoots in a host of other cities.
There are intimate, toned-down readings too. At the almost-decade-long and venerable Danny’s Tavern Reading Series (1951 West Dickens Avenue) readers—recent performers include Matthew Zapruder, author of Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon Press, 2010) and Eileen Myles, author of Inferno (a poet’s novel) (OR Books, 2010)—sit cross-legged on the floor among audience members surrounded by candlelight.
Quimby’s, located at 1854 West North Avenue, is a print fetishist’s dream. Or nightmare: It’s impossible to leave the store without abandoning some fascinating finds on their overstuffed shelves. Managers Liz Mason and Edie Fake, of the suburb graphic series Gaylord Phoenix, keep them stocked with literary magazines and handmade zines, small press books, graphic novels, and art magazines. The store also hosts a handful of monthly readings. Whether you’re there for a reading or browsing the shelves, be warned: If you want to come out with any cash, you’ll need to go in with your hands tied behind your back.
But if you’re looking to line up for that big-time author’s signature, best head to the Book Cellar (4736-38 North Lincoln Avenue). This local favorite is everything you’d want in a neighborhood bookstore. On a pedestrian street tucked in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, owner Suzy Takacs has done everything right. Big comfy chairs to expert staff recommendations to an in-store café (alcohol! with books!)—only a book lover could lay such an alluring trap. The store is also a great supporter of Chicago literary life, from hosting wine-fueled book clubs to reading series like Essay Fiesta, a nonfiction reading series benefiting various organizations such as 826CHI, the Howard Brown Health Center, to the ever-popular Local Author Night, which has featured Keir Graff, Achy Obejas, J. Adams Oaks, and Gina Frangello.
Founded in 1887, the Newberry Library (60 West Walton Street) is old, weird, and beautiful, and the setting of local author Audrey Niffenegger’s runaway hit, The Time Traveler’s Wife(Harcourt, 2003). It is privately funded, yet open to the public and its collections house 1.5 million books and 500,000 historic maps. You could spend hours browsing through medieval illuminated manuscripts, searching for long-lost relatives, or reading the book made of human skin. But if you’d rather be social, the library also offers lots of classes, events, and exhibitions—particularly noteworthy are the annual used book sale or the Bughouse Square Debates—that allow for mingling with other bibliophiles.
The grandiose Harold Washington Library Center (400 South State Street), the main branch of the Chicago Public Library, is the most Harry Potter-esque building I’ve ever seen outside of a Harry Potter film. Art and sculpture are displayed attractively throughout, and I loved a recent mini-exhibit dedicated to Daniel Burnham’s 1909 plan of Chicago. They have expansive stacks, great for researching almost any topic, and a popular section of music and movie selections. The library’s One Book, One Chicago program, which encourages a citywide book club, most recently read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.
My pick for favorite library, however, goes to the Read/Write Library (formery the Chicago Underground Library). Nell Taylor collects zines, local publications, and obscure ephemera and makes them available to the public. It’s run by volunteers and librarians from institutions throughout the city. The new community base hosts readings, performances, games, and music.
Finished my mini-tour of the Chicago literary scene? Time to go home, sober up, and read some books—don’t even get me started on Chicago-based book recommendations.