Washington, D.C., is an extraordinary place to live, recent natural disasters notwithstanding. It’s peppered with world-class museums and arts organizations, historic buildings and vibrant, blossoming neighborhoods. Here are three uniquely D.C. titles suitable for both eager tourists and jaded natives.
1. Literary Capital: A Washington Reader, edited by Christopher Sten (Univ. of Georgia, $29.95). The scope of this hefty primer (it comes close to 500 pages) is astonishing, with nearly 80 writers contributing poetry, novels, essays, memoirs and journalism. Christopher Sten, a professor of English at George Washington University, begins the survey with the capital’s founding in 1800 and pinpoints the dichotomy of Washington writing — authors focus either on the business of politics or on the everyday lives of city residents. Early Washington writers tended to be visitors and tourists (Alexis de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope, Henry James) recording their experiences while others came on missions of journalism or advocacy (John Greenleaf Whittier, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary McCarthy, Frederick Douglass). The rabble-rousing Washington novel is well represented as is all the political brouhaha (think abolitionism, Vietnam and Watergate) that makes its way into fiction and reportage. Special attention is given to the historically rich African American literary community (Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, Sterling A. Brown) as well as the contemporary coterie of writers (Susan Richards Shreve, Edward P. Jones, Marita Golden, Thomas Mallon and George Pelecanos) whose attention is fixed on the personal more than the political.
2. America’s Church: The National Shrine and the Catholic Presence in the Nation’s Capital, by Thomas A. Tweed (Oxford Univ., $35). This history of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — from the laying of the foundation stone in 1913 to its dedication in 1959 — is somewhat scholarly but quite compelling once you start reading. The massive church that sits on the campus of the Catholic University of America has been an iconic, if at times controversial, fixture on the Washington skyline. Its Byzantine-Romanesque design delights some and appalls others, and it has various nicknames, not all of them kind and some downright puerile. Thomas A. Tweed discovered that a person’s reaction to the edifice was a fairly accurate reflection of his or her religious views (he labels it a “spiritual Rorschach test”). In the book, the building becomes a prism through which to examine the evolution of American Catholicism.
3. Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital, edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith (Johns Hopkins Univ., $45). Kathryn Schneider Smith, the founding executive director of Cultural Tourism DC and a past president of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., has updated her original 1988 survey, adding six neighborhoods to this elegant guide to the District’s lively and historic sectors. In many ways, it’s a new book, as the text has been updated (by the original authors, where possible), fresh photographs enliven the pages, and reference notes have been added for easier navigation. D.C. straddles many lines — North-South, federal city-hometown, wealthy-poor, black-white — which makes it confusing for outsiders to grasp. One of this book’s goals was to unmask those areas beyond the tourist sites and, in the gentlest way possible, flaunt the fascinating neighborhoods and uncommon people who live here. Though this book published last year, it’s a timeless resource for D.C. and history buffs alike.
— Christopher Schoppa