Purging Books, Making Art and Ruling Chicago

by Joe Holman
Purging Books, Making Art and Ruling Chicago

Dear readers,

During a recent bookshelf purge, I realized that over the years I had acquired dozens of volumes simply because I couldn’t resist their gnomic titles. (“Four Frightened People,” “Mushroom Town” and “Keeping a Horse in the Suburbs” all ended up on our laundry room’s giveaway table.)

A whole shelf was given over just to memoirs with grandiose titles: “Champagne … and Real Pain” by the former society columnist Maggi Nolan, “Polly’s Principles: Polly Bergen Tells You How You Can Feel and Look as Young as She Does,” by the selfsame TV personality; the peerless “Memoirs of a Professional Cad,” obviously by George Sanders, who in his lifetime managed to marry two different Gabor sisters. (An honorable mention must be awarded to George Hamilton’s “Don’t Mind if I Do.”)

The following books are biographies, not memoirs, but they have earned a lasting place on the shelf for more than just their beautiful titles.

Sadie Stein

This 1971 best seller is the most informative L ride of a page-turner you’ll ever read. You don’t have to be fascinated by the sinister Daley Machine of Chicago — or the mayor’s notorious tenure — to get sucked into this hard-boiled powerhouse, clocking in at a slim 216 pages in paperback. Given to me by a city reporter friend, this has become one of the books I recommend most for unlikely escapism. But you don’t have to take my word for it! As Studs Terkel wrote in these pages, this “incredible inside story of the last of the backroom Caesars” is “stunning, astonishing, myth-shattering.” Jimmy Breslin was more restrained, calling it “the best book ever written about an American city by the best journalist of his time!”

Read if you like: “His Girl Friday,” “Fire and Fury,” Nelson Algren
Available from: A well-stocked library or your favorite book barn


First published in 1982 with the straightforward subtitle “A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin,” this is in fact so much more. Yes, Weschler explores Irwin’s early years with the California Abstract Expressionist school, and his move into spatial experimentation. We study the gardens of the Getty Center; Dia Beacon; Irwin’s light installations. You’ll come away with solid knowledge of the 20th-century art world.

But more than this, it’s a three-decade (and counting) conversation between artists that verges on the philosophical. What does it mean to exist within space? What is our relationship to it? To art and nature? If this sounds dry or tedious, let me assure you otherwise: It may take you a few pages to adjust to the book’s pacing — nothing is rushed here — but if you give the spare prose a chance, you will have read something that will never leave you. There is an asceticism to Irwin’s approach, meticulous craft wedded to absolute purity of intent, that is inspiring. In Irwin’s own words: “For the next week, try the best you can to pay attention to sounds. You will start hearing all these sounds coming in. Once you let them in, you’ve already done the first and most critical thing, you’ve honored that information by including it. And by doing that, you’ve actually changed the world.”

Read if you like: John Cage’s “Three Dances,” “I Love Dick” (the book), Werner Herzog’s “Fata Morgana.”
Available from: a good bookstore


  • Redecorate via book? It is a truth universally acknowledged that “À Rebours” has some of the best interiors descriptions in fiction. But just as riveting is “Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant,” in which the bright young thing decorates his eccentric estate, Wilsford Manor, along similarly decadent lines. Does decadence — or bright young thingdom, for that matter — age comfortably? You be the judge.

  • Reconsider linen? Let us say you have a journey of approximately one and one half hours to kill. Let us say you want to read something impeccably good, and impeccably odd, that straddles the line between experimental novella, prose poem, book of aphorisms and ironic manifesto — and that has Wayne Thiebaud cakes on the cover into the bargain? Helen DeWitt’s “The English Understand Wool” is calling your name.

  • Brush up on grammar? Some people count sheep; others meditate; someone was just telling me about drinking magnesium; my friend listens to the audiobook of “The Underground Railroad” over and over. Lately, I’ve been rereading “The Elements of Style.” Not only does any given page contain the kind of no-nonsense elegance that only E.B. White can sing, but with a little luck sleep will set your thoughts and you’ll wake up with a fixed knowledge of “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.”


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