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Exploring the American Writers Museum

Last weekend, I had the chance to visit the new American Writers Museum in Chicago, Illinois. I’d been looking forward to checking it out, having followed its initial fundraising efforts several years ago through its opening in the summer of 2017.

The result is an interactive full-immersion museum experience for book lovers. You know how you take your kids to a children’s museum, and there’s all this stuff there for them play with and touch, all in the name of learning? The American Writers Museum is kind of like that, but for adults who love to read.

Here, American literature is a living, breathing transformation, not something to view behind glass, but instead an ever-changing, organic thing that you can see, hear, taste, and take with you when you leave.

My traveling companions and I blew an entire morning here. Only an afternoon appointment (and lunchtime hunger pangs) pulled us away, kicking and screaming, because we really would rather have stayed.

There were way too many highlights to list, but here are a few:

1. The first exhibit is a touch screen that allows visitors to choose a state, then learn more about select writers from that state. Of course, I had to see who a Chicago museum chose to represent North Carolina. Harriet Ann Jacobs, William Sydney Portier (O. Henry), and Thomas Wolfe, it turns out, a respectable showing—North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame inductees, one and all.

2. I thought I knew a lot about writers and books, but the research accomplished by this museum truly made for an exceptional experience. Did you know Emily Dickinson baked award-winning pies? Or that Chester Himes—author of If He Hollers, Let Him Go, one of my favorite novels—wrote a famous detective series in a genre known as “black noir”? Or that Vladimir Nabokov wrote the first drafts of his novels on index cards and then pieced them all together? Maybe you did, but I sure didn’t!

Really, all the exhibits went way beyond superficial homage and offered a true deep-dive into cherished American works by American authors.

3. Several exhibits offer passages read aloud, from John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not” speech to a scene from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, to a selection from Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day (read by LeVar Burton!) to displays that allow you to view videos, admire chotskies, and smell scents related to certain literary passages, and more.

4. The museum lets visitors vote for their five favorite books: people still read and love To Kill a Mockingbird and the major works of John Steinbeck. Harper Lee’s famous novel and at least three of Steinbeck’s better-read works were on the Top 10 favorite books. (Yes, I definitely voted for five books written by my friends. Guilty as charged. And I won’t be shamed!)

5. North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame inductee Carl Sandburg embodies the Illinois-North Carolina connection. World-famous for his poem “Chicago,” Sandburg also raised prize-winning goats at his home Connemara in Flat Rock. He’s represented throughout the museum, being one of the Windy City’s most beloved poets, including as part of a striking exhibit of black and white photographs shot by James Jones.

Like I said, really too much to write about here. But if you find yourself in Chicago, it’s absolutely necessary to make time in your itinerary for a visit.

Tickets are an insanely reasonable $12 for adults ($8 for seniors and students), which seems like an absolute steal compared to other Chicago tourist attractions.

Just leave yourself plenty of time to geek out!

One last thought: toward the end, there’s an exhibit that allows you to create sentences with words offered up at random. Here’s the sentence I came up with, which, looking back, might easily be viewed as a subsconsious tribute to one of Chicago’s favorite sons and acrobatic wordsmiths, Saul Bellow:

Speedy world, yet racing, he sees what forever feels happiest.

Eat your heart out, Saul!

And yeah. I bought the hat. And a refrigerator magnet.

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