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A Washington Reading List

There are plenty of books which touch upon the history, politics and personalities of Washington DC; the problem is in getting an overall picture of the city. There's no one single straightforward and up-to-date history of DC, while visitors through the ages have tended only to include their observations of the capital as part of wider works about America. However, every book on American history contains at least a few pages about the founding of the capital city; Civil War treatises highlight DC as Lincoln's headquarters (and place of assassination), while Presidential autobiographies and biographies, from those of George Washington onwards, necessarily recount the daily experience of political and social life in the capital.

We've picked out some of the better, and more widely available, books about Washington DC, including novels set in the city. Many are available in good bookshops everywhere, and most in good bookstores in DC itself - where you'll also find local guides to ethnic restaurants, political trivia, cycling in the city, what to do with kids, and the like. Every major museum, gallery and attraction in DC sells related books, too, and these are a good first stop if you're looking for something arcane or specific - say a History of Cats in the White House or 101 Things to do with a Beltway Journalist.

In the list below, the US publisher is listed first, followed by the UK publisher. Where the book is published by the same company in both countries, the name of the company appears just once, and where books are published in only one of these countries, UK or US follows the publisher's name.

 

History

David Brinkley Washington Goes to War (Ballantine/Deutsch). Acclaimed account of the capital during World War II under FDR, charting its emergence onto the international stage.

 

Alistair Cooke. Over sixty years as a correspondent has left Cooke with a wealth of American stories, personal histories and snapshots of cities, times and crises that adorn everything he writes and broadcasts. The capital appears as a bit player in much of his work, though its presidents, politicians and people provide substance.

 

Francine Curro Cary Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington DC (Smithsonian Institution Press). A readable historical account of settlement (and racial discrimination) in the city.

 

David Lewis District of Columbia: A History (Norton, US). Useful standard history of the District, although written as it was in 1976, it stops well short of contemporary times.

 

Lloyd Lewis The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth (University of Nebraska Press). Lyrical, minute-by-minute account of the city's most notorious assassination and its aftermath, first written in 1929 (as Myths After Lincoln) and still entertaining.

 

Politics and Politicians

Anonymous Primary Colors (Warner/Random House). Highly readable, barely disguised account of a presidential primary campaign by young, charsimatic, calculating, philandering, Southern governor Jack Stanton. Published amid great controversy in 1996, the book threw into the public domain the more reprehensible antics of press and politicians - its author was eventually unmasked as journalist and Washington insider Joe Klein.

 

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward All the President's Men (Simon & Schuster, US), The Final Days (Touchstone, US). America's most famous journalistic sleuths tell the gripping story of the unravelling of the Nixon presidency. All the President's Men is a great book, later made into a great film; The Final Days saw the duo wrapping up the loose ends. Although both have written investigative books since, none has matched these early classics.

 

Paul F Boller Presidential Anecdotes, Presidential Campaigns, Congressional Anecdotes (all OUP). Amusing, inconsequential political factoids - who did what, where and when, and with whom.

 

Nigel Cawthorne Sex Lives of the US Presidents (Prion). Cawthorne turns his scurrilous eye to the horizontal pleasures of the world's most powerful men. Entertaining ephemera.

 

Frederick Douglass The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Carol/ Wordsworth). The third volume (1881) of statesman, orator and ex-slave Frederick Douglass' autobiography sees him finally living in DC as US marshal and recorder of deeds. However, the early first volume (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, 1845, Penguin) is actually more gripping.

 

David McKay Politics and Power in the USA (Penguin). Most up-to-date (written in 1991) and best general introduction to who does what, why and when in the United States government.

 

P J O'Rourke Parliament of Whores (Random House/Picador). All O'Rourke's demented political insights and raving rightwing prejudices brought together in a scabrous critique of the American political system as practised in Washington DC. It's also very, very funny.

 

Hunter S Thompson. Gonzo's at his best taking sideswipes at corrupt politicians full of cant, and any of his books or collected essays feature a Washington villain or twenty - shot down in flames by a man for whom politics isn't the only drug.

 

Architecture

Christopher Weeks AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington DC (John Hopkins University Press). Authoritative illustrated guide to the architecture of the city, covering buildings from every period since its founding.

 

Visitors to DC

David Cutler Literary Washington (Madison, US). The words and wisdom of celebrated writers, past and present, who have visited, worked and lived in DC.

 

Charles Dickens American Notes (Penguin). One of the most quoted of all visitors, Dickens came in the early 1840s, when it was still, famously, a "City of Magnificent Intentions". Highly enjoyable satirical banter from a British writer at ease with America.

 

Jan Morris Destinations (OUP). Typically dry observations of Washington high and low life, one of a series of pieces (about international cities) first written in the early 1980s for Rolling Stone magazine.

 

Anthony Trollope North America (Da Capo/Alan Sutton). Two-volume account of Trollope's visit to the US in the early 1860s. Picking up where his pioneering mother, Fanny, had left off in her contentious Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), Trollope lays about him with ire and verve - in Volume II, Capitol building, White House, DC's streets and hotels, Washington Monument and the Smithsonian all come in for undiluted carping and moaning. Great stuff.

 

DC in Fiction

Henry Adams Democracy (NAL-Dutton/Meridian). A story of electioneering and intrigue set in 1870s DC, written (anonymously) by the historian grandson of John Quincy Adams.

 

Jeffrey Archer Shall We Tell the President? (Pocket Books/Harper Collins). The "master storyteller" serves up the usual offering - risible characterization, feeble plot development and leaden prose wrapped around a DC-set tale of an assassination plot against "President Edward Kennedy".

 

William Peter Blatty The Exorcist (Harper Collins/Corgi). Blatty's seminal horror story about the possession of a teenage girl, written in 1971, was set around Georgetown University and made into the scariest film ever produced.

 

Tom Clancy. One of the best of the blockbuster thriller writers, Clancy weaves DC scenes (or at least the White House, Capitol building, FBI and CIA HQ at Langley in Virginia) into nearly every tale of spook and terrorist intrigue - most explosively in Debt of Honor (Berkley/Harper Collins) in which the President, Cabinet and most of Congress perish in an attack on the US Capitol.

 

Richard Timothy Conroy The India Exhibition, Mr Smithson's Bones, Old Ways in the New World (St Martin's Press, US). Murder, mystery and labyrinthine goings-on in a series of engaging thrillers set in the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Allen Drury Advise and Consent (Avon, US). Blackmail and slippery politics in Washington's upper echelons in the late 1950s; the novel was turned into a fine film by Otto Preminger starring Henry Fonda.

 

John Grisham The Pelican Brief (Dell/Arrow). Renowned legal whodunnit (capably filmed) starting with the assassination of two Supreme Court judges and delving into dodgy politics and murky land deals.

 

Elliott Roosevelt Murder in the . . . (St Martin's Press & Avon/Severn House). White House murder tales (with the dark deed committed in the Blue Room, West Wing, etc) by FDR's son, with the highly improbable First Lady-turned-sleuth Eleanor riding to the rescue every time.

 

Margaret Truman Murder . . . (Fawcett/Severn House). Harry's daughter churns out wooden murder-mystery stories set in various neighbourhoods and buildings of DC, from Georgetown to the National Cathedral.

 

Gore Vidal Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Washington DC (all Ballantine/Abacus). DC's - and America's - most potent, cynical chronicler sustains a terrific burst of form in five hugely enjoyable novels that trace the history of the US from the Revolution to modern times and rely heavily on Washington set-piece scenes. The moving epic Lincoln is the real tour-de-force.

 

Poetry

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass (OUP/Everyman). The first edition of Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, and Whitman added sections to it for the rest of his life. His war poems, Drum-Taps (1865), were directly influenced by his work in DC's Civil War hospitals; later, Memories of President Lincoln were added after the assassination - including the famous and affecting O Captain! My Captain!.