Washington: A real city that has produced real literature

January 9, 2013

For so long as I can remember, Washington has suffered from a bad literary rap. Its literature is assumed to consist of ephemeral books by journalists about ephemeral events, ephemeral hack novels about ephemeral melodramas on Capitol Hill and at the CIA, and ephemeral, not to mention unreadable, presidential memoirs. Well, over the years this city has managed to produce plenty of those, but as the accompanying list of suggested reading makes plain, it has also inspired work of quality, variety and, in some cases, genuine literary merit. ¶Chicago and Los Angeles are commonly accepted as the American cities that have inspired the finest books, with New Orleans a few steps behind them.

New York edits and publishes and markets books, but take away the work of Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss and there aren’t all that many first-rate books about the city, and of course those two fine writers wrote exclusively about the WASP upper class.

Take by way of contrast my three favorite books on The Post’s list: Margaret Leech’s “Reveille in Washington” is a superb work of history about the city during the Civil War that has the depth, breadth and humanity of a great novel; Edward P. Jones’s “Lost in the City” gives the District’s African American residents their due and then some in short stories of amazing poignancy and power; and Dinaw Mengestu’s “The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears” is a quietly heartbreaking account of the price of gentrification in, as it happens, the Logan Circle neighborhood where I live.

Our list is the work of many hands and reflects many tastes, but what matters most about it is that it consists of books about Washington as a place where real people live and work, not as a place where deals are done and muscles are flexed. It tells us that, long-standing rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, Washington itself is a real city, not an artificial Brasilia but a human community with its own culture, traditions and heritage. Reading the books on it will make you even prouder of having become a part of that community, will teach you a great deal about it and will make you want to learn even more.

Because we have only so much space for this enterprise and because we wanted to include as broad a representation as possible of the city’s variety, inevitably many of you will note, and regret, some omissions. Probably there will be e-mails shouting: “Where is Henry Adams’s ‘Democracy’?” I didn’t recommend it because I find it impenetrable, and since no one else proposed it, perhaps it has at last forfeited the title of “Great Washington Novel.” I do regret the omission of anything by Ward Just, who has written often and uncommonly well about various aspects of the city, and I wish we could have included more than one novel by George Pelecanos (who is to Washington what John D. MacDonald was to South Florida) as well as Edward P. Jones’s second story collection, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.”

Never mind. It’s a good list, and it will take you to good places. Read on!

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