The week I moved to Washington, my dad came to visit with a futon strapped to his minivan for my empty apartment and a John Grisham paperback for my bookshelf. He chose the book because it was set in my new Zip code; the main action took place in a fictional law office three blocks away from my place. That was 10 years ago. I don’t remember much about the plot of “The Street Lawyer,” except that there was a conspiracy and a murder and some cackling men in suits. What I also remember is this line, describing the street I’d just moved onto: “The crack houses couldn’t be far away.”
When D.C. librarian Kim Zablud hears this story, she nods at the specificity of the memory. “Fiction conveys a whole setting that nonfiction doesn’t,” she says. It barnacles to our brains long after encyclopedia entries and news articles have disintegrated.
This was the reasoning behind D.C. by the Book, a just-launched Web site created by Zablud and fellow librarian Tony Ross. The goal: to create a “fictional map” of the city, a clickable collection of every novel set in Washington, a literary journey through place.
“Washington is a robust literary city,” Ross says. “If you don’t know the city well — it’s a city that nurtures writers . . . and we have richer stories than just the federal story, or spy novels.” D.C. by the Book, funded with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, is about Washington, the city, emerging from the shadow of Washington, the capital.
On the site, search for books set near Judiciary Square and find Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn” characters visiting the old Pension Building (now the National Building Museum): “a frieze of Civil War soldiers moving cannons and guns and wagons and horses around the perimeter.” Or search near Mount Vernon Square and witness Miss Georgia, from Edward P. Jones’s “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” meeting her future husband outside the What Ailing Ya beer garden at the corner of Fifth and M streets NW. Or, in a self-referential exercise, search near Metro Center and see one of George Pelecanos’s detectives meandering into the main branch of the D.C. Public Library to conduct research in the Washingtonia room.
On a recent evening, a group of writers whose books have already been plotted on the online map — a list of 1,000 titles awaits crowdsourced assistance from faithful readers; anyone may contribute — gathered with fans at a Busboys and Poets for the site’s kickoff event.
“Did you know,” says English professor Adam McKible, “that this is the only book without a single white character” to be published during the Harlem Renaissance?
The book in question is “When Washington Was in Vogue,” an out-of-print serial novel by Edward Christopher Williams that McKible discovered during his doctoral research and succeeded in getting reissued.
Finding the book “taught me to reconsider the Harlem Renaissance — I’d thought it was a New York thing, but it’s actually a misnomer,” McKible says. “When Washington Was in Vogue,” an epistolary novel written from the perspective of a middle-class black serviceman, takes readers to music halls on U Street NW and to baseball games with the Negro League’s Homestead Grays where Howard University Hospital now stands.
“My novels quickly become period novels because the city is changing so fast,” offers Pelecanos, the crime writer. “I consider my books to be a record of the city.”
By the time I read my father’s gift, “The Street Lawyer,” five years after its publication, the crack description was already out of date. The 14th Street Corridor was more hipster than hooker; a Starbucks was underway down the block. But for several weeks, that stupid John Grisham novel was a palimpsest over every street I walked down; a ghost of recent history that left me wondering about what I’d just missed.
“I like that word, ‘palimpsest,’ ” says Kim Roberts. She is a “subject matter expert” for D.C. By the Book, brought into the project because of her original work on a similar site, DCWriters.org, which charted the real-life residences of late Washington writers.
The new site “isn’t about where they lived,” she says. “This is about where their imagination lived.”