The Chicago You Know, The Chicago You Don’t Know
Monday, June 29, 2020
By Donald G. Evans
The Summer 2020 Chicago Fit/Lit Challenge
July 13–Aug. 17, 2020
Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers (maybe adults, too—if you are interested, contact me)
Through Zoom and Discord. Site visits are self-guided. (Make it a family outing).
Whenever I find myself in a strange place, or even a somewhat familiar place that is not home, I use bookstores to orient myself. I find the best, most interesting shops, used and new, and put that pin on the map. In visiting those shops, I learn about local authors and everything else local. Almost without failure, the bookshop owners—or managers, or clerks—know a lot about a lot. Almost without failure, the people who run bookstores delight in sharing what they know. Almost without failure, the bookshop people like to help.
I suppose what I love about good bookstores is that they attract people for whom books and learning and community are a way of life. This is where they want to be—their home base from which to explore the world. Almost everybody who reads habitually has a keen intellectual curiosity and hones their sense of what it means to be human. Good humans.
When I leave that bookstore, I step out into a place not quite so strange. I’ve learned the location of the homes, museums, parks, exhibits and statues associated with local literature. I’ve got places to go and see, and from that starting point I can indulge many of my other interests. In this way, I discovered London’s two-century old James J. Fox cigar shop, where Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill once smoked. It was how I wound up sipping Guinness in Dublin’s Palace Bar, a spot frequented by Brendan Behan, among others. Such a bookstore scouting excursion helped me find my way to Paris’s Pere-Lachaise Cemetery to visit the graves of Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, Richard Wright, and Gertrude Stein (as well as Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, and others). I organized trips to New York’s Riverside Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park around visits to the Ralph Ellison and Robert Burns statues.
And of course, I discovered a wealth of non-literary enticements in the course of being out and about.
Back at my hotel or bed and breakfast or isolated in my friend’s spare bedroom, I unpack my book purchases and read. Through these stories, I get a sense, if only that, of local history, culture, customs, of local interests and politics: what makes this place unique. I get more ideas for how to optimize my short, precious time in a place to which I might never return, or in any event no time soon.
These days, of course, I’m not going anywhere. I’m stuck. But time is still precious, it still needs to be optimized. And Chicago, the place in which I was raised and have lived the majority of my adult life, continues to be a source of surprise. I know a lot about Chicago, but it’s a city so vast and diverse that what I don’t know is more substantial still.
It was with this idea in mind that I put together, with the considerable help of all-star interns Patty Kelsey and Kelci Dean, a summer program dedicated to an ongoing exploration of Chicago. The idea is to make a conscious effort to read, write, and exercise, and to organize those efforts like I’ve done with my out-of-town bookstore visits. More so, it’s an effort to help my 16-year-old son Dusty, who, like me and my wife Margaret, has been hiding from the virus here at home since early March.
I’m calling the program Summer 2020 Chicago Fit/Lit Challenge. The premise is simple: read, write, explore. Participants will earn points for reading Chicago books, visiting Chicago literary sites, and creating written or video responses to what they read and see. Prizes will be given out—probably not a new boat or a shopping spree, but something small and hopefully meaningful. The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame will be your bookstore, in that we will provide suggestions for books to read and places to visit. We will be available through Discord and Zoom, as well as email, to answer questions and offer insight. The hope is that we will all share what we’ve discovered and contribute ideas that will allow our little community the chance to find still more ways to optimize their precious time, to discover still more about their own city.
I’m excited about this. Already, I’ve had several adults saying—“Wait, me, too!” and perhaps we’ll fashion a way to include the grown-ups. We’re still roughing out some of this, but I encourage you to join and help us make this a program that will change the dynamics of a summer in which we’ve maybe had enough already of Netflix and Mindcraft and jigsaw puzzles.