The Caxton Club of Chicago, founded in 1895, has dedicated itself to the field of book arts—the creation of volumes using the structural, creative and craft disciplines such as design, typography, printing, papermaking and bookbinding needed to produce books that are more than readable; they’re also beautiful works of art.
The little-known organization has grown from the 15 original members to over 300, but its focus remains the same.Over the last 123 years, in addition to sponsoring regular programs and occasional symposia devoted to the book arts, the club has published 60 books,each uniquely lovely—almost sensual in a way. And that is true of its latest, Chicago by the Book: 101 Publications That Shaped the City and Its Image (University of Chicago Press, 2018; $35), Its glossy pages, smooth to the touch, feature beguiling visuals of book and magazine covers, inside spreads, photos, song sheets and architectural plans and perspectives (by such notables as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe) spanning more than a century and a half.
“We don’t do a book every year, but maybe a book or two every decade,” says Susan Rossen, editor of Chicago by the Book and former publisher at the Art Institute of Chicago, because, as she explains, the work required is done by members pro bono, and time is needed for fundraising. Rossen became a Caxtonian in the early 1980s in order to meet other book lovers. She collects early twentieth-century volumes for adults illustrated by woodcuts and wood engravings.
“One of our major focuses is the book arts of the Midwest, and this book is an example. It’s a book of books about Chicago—101 titles that reveal Chicago and its image as seen through the lenses of many different disciplines.” The first entry in Chicago by the Book is Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago, written in 1844 by Juliette Kinzie. The last is Sara Paretsky’s crime novel Brush Back.,published in 2015. In between, there are titles we might expect as exemplifying the city, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle; Gwendolyn Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville; Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago,; Mike Royko’s Boss: Richard J. Daley and David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and The Duck Variations, as well as lesser knowns—A Portfolio of Fine Apartment Homes and The International Competition for a New Administration Building for the Chicago Tribune.
Each title is partnered with a narrative by writers,academics, and book aficionados. For example, Alex Kotlowitz, whose groundbreaking There Are No Children Here is included among the 101, writes the commentary for Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make. Andplaywright Regina Taylor discusses Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer–prizewinning Raisin in the Sun.
Amazingly, of all these publications,even those published in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, just a handful are out of print. Most of those can be found online and at local libraries.The very rare ones are available for viewing at such places as the Newberry Library, the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Public Library, and the libraries of local universities.
”Chicago by the Book is less specialized than most of the books we’ve done in the past,” says Rossen. “We believe it will appeal widely to lovers of books and lovers of Chicago. It represents current scholarship, but the writing isaccessible and engaging. And we believe the book’s reasonable price–$35—will be attractive too. This is a book you don’t need to read from cover to cover. It’s arranged chronologically, but you can pick and choose what appeals to you. Hopefully, the entries and illustrations will introduce you to new reading experiences and/or inspire you to reacquaint yourself with books your ead long ago.”