by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff

University of Chicago Press


1117pp/$65.00/September 2004

The Encyclopedia of Chicago
Michael Brehm

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

If you're looking to find out information about Buckingham Fountain or Mayor "Long" John Wentworth, The Encyclopedia of Chicago won't be the place to look for information.  This massive book, edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff focuses on thematic entries rather than specific ones.  From Abolititionism to Zoroastrians.  The bulk of the encyclopedia is followed by listings of major Chicago businesses, a brief biographical dictionary of important (dead) Chicagoans, and census information about the city, neighborhoods and surrounding region.

The design of the book promotes browsing through its collection of articles.  Cross references provide the reader with suggestions for other topics and essays to read.  The casual reader, therefore, will find himself immersed in an eclectic history of Chicago which is more random than guided.  However, for a reader looking for specific information, this approach is less than optimal.

Each page contains a variety of different types of articles.  On one page, there are articles about a specific theatre, a social movement, a natural event, and a type of school.  While at first this mixture of types of entries appears strange, it provides a better flavor of the mixture which makes up the city of Chicago.  There does not appear to be any rhyme or reason for the selection of some of the entries.  Some theatres merit their own entry (Second City) while others (Victory Gardens) are merely subsumed under the thematic entry for Theatre Companies.  Other specific entries which may make the reader wonder are the ones for "Tinker to Evers to Chance" or the novel Sister Carrie.

Throughout the encyclopedia, there are sidebars which relate to the longer thematic entries.  These are set aside in gray boxes and tend to be about individuals, such as the one about Amos Alonzo Stagg connected to the article on football.  The book also  has three sections set apart on glossy paper.  The first is an essay on the "City as Artifact."  The second is a timeline of the history of Chicago, including brief historical articles and maps.  The third is a series of colored demographic maps of Chicago and the neighboring areas.  The main text of the book is also copiously illustrated with photos and reproductions.

The index at the end of the book is necessary for anyone who wants to find out information about an individual or a specific place, since the book is not designed for quick reference for those types of topics.  Without the index, the book would be much less useful than it is.  The index appears to be complete and includes not only the main text, but also the corporate dictionary at the end of the book.

It does seem odd for a book which purports to be an encyclopedia of a region not to include entries on some of the more famous denizens who shaped the city, although there is much information on many of them interspersed throughout other articles (seven articles feature information about Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, in addition to the dictionary entries on him and his company).  Despite this flaw, the thematic approach may give a better overall picture of the region.

While The Encyclopedia of Chicago has its flaws, it is a tremendously useful and interesting book.  It provides a broad range of topics relating to the city and its environs and taken all together gives an excellent overview of the city, occasionally digging deep into Chicago's underbelly.  The lack of many specific entries is troubling for the book, but the breadth of information contained, and the fact that details about specific people is scattered throughout, makes The Encyclopedia of Chicago and excellent addition to any library about the city.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books.

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