Tuesday, October 11, 2022

"Witty, economical and often whimsical"

     The would-be writer longs for the book itself, the tangible object, with his or her name emblazoned on the cover. To hold in his or her hands, to see in store windows. Often it seems, based on the self-published efforts that cross my desk, they don't care how greasy or handmade the book seems. So long as it exists in the world.
     As an established author, however, I've turned that logic on its head. To create a book takes so much work, years of effort, and offer so little compensation, relatively, that the work itself has to be the reward. It isn't that you don't care what the thing looks like. You do. But you also, if you're smart, learn to take your satisfaction from the doing of the thing, and not its reception.
    With my ninth book published, ah, tomorrow, I'd pretty much convinced myself the real pleasure is behind me: the research, the writing, the editing, the process.
    As for the rest? Publication of a book is the punishment you endure for the joy of writing one. Because really, what happens? General neglect, interrupted with flashes of misunderstanding.
     However. There is room for surprise in life. The new book, "Every Goddamn Day: A Highly Subjective, Definitely Opinionated, Alternatively Humorous and Heartbreaking Historical Tour of Chicago," based loosely on this blog, doesn't officially drop until Wednesday. But it's already defied my expectations.
     First there was the Printers Row Lit Fest in September. Of all the moments I've had after writing books, from being on Oprah to seeing the book reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, I don't think anything will match having people line up in a driving downpour to get their books signed. That was humbling.
     And now Mary Wisniewski's review in NewCity, published Monday. Wow. Yes. Really, you should just read the piece. It begins:
     Writing history is a fascinating, frustrating business. You must construct a narrative out of so much that is unknown and incomplete. It’s like working a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing, and only a vague or wrong idea of what it should look like. Or it’s like creating an animation — you must assemble many little pictures, to give an illusion of reality and motion.
     In his new, odd Chicago history, “Every Goddamn Day,” Chicago Sun-Times columnist and author Neil Steinberg creates a kind of animated flipbook, putting together many pictures, one for each day of the year. By filling each story with startling detail, he creates a moving, living picture of Chicago’s past. The ambition of the project and the tidy economy of each one or two-page vignette means he packs a lot of Chicago into one book. It goes way beyond the clich├ęs of pizza, Al Capone and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Like a civic Scheherazade, Steinberg offers a vast variety of tales...
     "Odd" gave me pause. Uh oh, I thought. Here it comes. But the book is odd, unusual — what's the point of writing an ordinary book? And then she proceeded to do what every writer of books wants done: understand what I was trying to do.
      I don't want to seize her work. You can read the rest by clicking here.
     If nobody else says another word about the book, I'll be able to tell myself that at least it was comprehensible, that someone was able to grasp what I was doing. And yes, I was lucky to draw Mary, who is accomplished writer herself, who wrote "Algren: A Life," an acclaimed biography of Nelson Algren.
     All told, off to a good start. There's the Sandburg Awards dinner Wednesday, and the official book launch party next Monday. Writing books is a largely private endeavor — not entirely, particularly in this case, where the impetus for the book came from my friends at the University of Chicago Press. But beyond occasional suggestions and course corrections, you work by yourself, pretty much, plodding toward your own solitary star, for years. Then suddenly the thing tumbles out into the public, for a few days or weeks. I'll keep you apprised and, of course, if you want to see what the fuss is about yourself, you can order the book here.


  1. As a library lover & lifelong user , where is that very cool looking library in the photo, where is it?

    1. The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale.

    2. Cool. You can tell those are old (and rare) books. Gotta wonder how many volumes are actually visible in that image of the five tiers. That's the way my mind works.

    3. My guesstimate: Somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000...

  2. "A civic Scheherazade." I think that works.



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