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Better Politics, Smarter Government: Illuminating Illinois’ triumphs and travailsthrough literature

Editor’s Note: This op-ed was distributed by Capitol News Illinois on behalf of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. The opinions expressed in this article

are the author’s own.

Several years ago, the staff of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute was preparing for our Renewing Illinois Summit for university and college students, and we wanted to provide them with suggested reading about Illinois.

I checked my shelves at the institute and jotted down the titles of various books on state history and politics. I then called several colleagues and asked them if they had any recommendations, phrasing my request this way: “If you were teaching an Illinois 101 course to highly motivated undergraduates, what five books would you assign them to read? They can be histories, biographies, novels or essays. In sum, they would provide a wide- ranging and nuanced understanding of Illinois.”

I decided to extend this question to some respected leaders and analysts in Illinois, including U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, former Gov. Jim Edgar, Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon. They submitted recommendations that are both inspiring and humbling – inspiring in the sense that the many compelling books underscore the richness and diversity of our state and humbling in that they remind me about how many important books I still should read!

The recommendations included biographies of Illinois political leaders such as Paul Douglas, Everett Dirksen, Richard Ogilvie, Carol Moseley Braun, Robert Michel and Adlai Stevenson. They also revealed a deep fascination with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley

and one of his successors, Harold Washington.

Respondents touted two general state histories: “Illinois: A History of the Land and Its People” by Roger Biles and “Illinois: A History of the Prairie State” by Robert Howard. Two chronicles of Chicago were 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 clear interest in regional histories about central and southern Illinois and about two fabled communities, Cahokia and Kaskaskia.

Respondents lauded works by revered Illinois literary luminaries Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks and Theodore Dreiser as well as Illinois’ celebrated writer- presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.

As the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, I was gratified to see several of Paul Simon’s books recommended: “Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness,” “Our Culture of Pandering” and “Freedom’s Champion: Elijah Lovejoy.”

The institute assembled the recommendations into a booklet called “Illinois 101,” which we sent to libraries, civic groups and public officials across the state. If you would like a copy, email us at paulsimoninstitute@ and we’ll be glad to mail you one. Inspired by this interest in Illinois literature, the institute launched an Illinois Authors program in which we host conversations with writers about the state. So far, we have had conversations with Robert Hartley, a journalist and historian, about his biographies of Paul Simon and Paul Powell; Kristin Hoganson, a history professor at the University of Illinois, about her book “The Heartland: An American History;” and Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning arts critic, about her book “Negroland: A Memoir.”

Our conversations with these impressive authors have been wide-ranging and stimulating. They have been on Zoom, but after COVID-19 eases we are eager to host Illinois Author discussions in person throughout the state.

We invite everyone to send us the titles of their favorite books about Illinois and recommend authors that we should consider inviting for future discussions. Email your suggestions to

I hope you will join me this year in reading fascinating and valuable books about our state. You might even consider creating an Illinois book club or focusing your current book club’s reading on Illinois-related titles. 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 the discussion it inspires will guide all of us to do more to renew and revitalize the Prairie State.

John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Shaw’s monthly column explores how Illinois can work toward better politics and smarter government.

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