Dan Brown’s 2009 The Lost Symbol is a shoe-in for a novel that clearly features important landmarks of the Washington, DC, where reader-travelers can venture for first-hand experiences. Robert Langdon, our Harvard symbologist from the enormously popular The Da Vinci Code returns to deliver a lecture in The Capitol building but literally stumbles upon the severed hand of his revered mentor, Peter Solomon, an appendage that has been tattooed with various Masonic symbols that lead Langdon on a chase to uncover “ancient mysteries.” Langdon escapes through the Library of Congress. The Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building of the LOC is part of the path, and this over-the-top architectural gem is definitely worth a stop on anyone’s tour of Washington, DC.
Definitely take the guided tour of the Jefferson Building to learn about hidden Masonic and other symbols. Read the quotes that adorn the walls—all from Thomas Jefferson. Visit the recreation of Jefferson’s Library as well as the rare Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio. Listen to Groucho Marx tell Johnny Carson that he is highly flattered and proud that The Smithsonian wants his letters.
Langdon and company visit several sites in their attempt to escape the evil clutches of the richly-tattooed villain: the Folger, Metro, National Cathedral, and America’s own Egyptian-style obelisk—the Washington Monument. Will the secret mysteries be found in the Masonic Monument to George Washington near Alexandria? Were the Founding Fathers more committed to Freemasonry than to a new country? If someone can read to the end of this incredible and, frankly, unbelievable narrative, then all will be revealed.
Consider instead President Truman’s daughter’s mysteries. Mary Margaret Truman Daniels wrote (or some allege a ghost writer wrote) several mysteries set in the nation’s capitol, Murder in the Library of Congress (1999), for instance. Since her passing, the series has been adopted by a “co-writer” in much the same way that Dorothy Sayers literary estate signed on Jill Paton Walsh to continue the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane series.
More satisfying than a Dan Brown thriller are the titles that have a relationship to the District of Columbia. Take, for instance, Rita Mae Brown’s fictional account of the life of Dolley Todd Madison, Dolley (1994), a rollicking good read. She is so obviously connected to the White House, but after her son by a first marriage emptied the family coffers and the intellectually outsized James Madison passed, she spent much of her final days in a house near the executive mansion. A plaque notes its history. Do visit the Madison family home, Montepelier in Virginia, for the rest of the story.
Certainly, one can watch the franchise Night at the Museum to get a behind-the-scenes look at The Smithsonian. Better still pick up Tony Hillerman’s Talking God (1989), the 9th entry in the Joe Longhorn/Jim Chee series. Henry Highhawk, whose maternal grandmother is a Navajo, is a conservator in the Smithsonian. Both of the Navajo detectives depart from Arizona/New Mexico and wind up in the nation’s capitol. Jim Chee ends one relationship and begins another with Janet Pete, who is the attorney for Highhawk. The novel also features Dr. Caroline Hartman, Curator of the exhibit in the Natural History Museum on “Masked Gods of the Americas.”
Speaking of Smithsonian museums, an undiscovered gem for a rest stop is the Courtyard Cafe, a wonderfully open and quiet space for lunch between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.
One of my very first connections between literature for the road and travel involved The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (1979). I adored this book, the story of the nation’s test pilots and first astronauts. I challenge any reader to complete the introduction and not be moved. Before the astronauts, there was Chuck Yeager. He broke the sound barrier, and his story is told enthrallingly in Wolfe’s book. See his Glamorous Glennis (a tribute to his wife) aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum. Likewise, the capsules of the inaugural class of astronauts are there. I remember very well getting a pin at my local library, the Warsaw Boonslick Library, in 1960, featuring Friendship 7, John Glenn’s flight. Perhaps that touchstone with my library made Wolfe’s book some 20 years later so very meaningful.
Another favorite venue in Washington, DC is at the American History Museum: Julia Child’s kitchen. The exhibition has gone through a couple of remodels since I first visited it—no doubt based on its enormous popularity and the commercial success of the film, Julie and Julia. Any number of books provide a wonderful basis for viewing her actual kitchen, assembled intact from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Julie and Julie, naturally, but perhaps more appropriately, My Life in France (2009), or the remarkable correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, As Always, Julia (2010). I also admire two other books, one from her personal assistant on her PBS show, Nancy Verde Barr’s Backstage with Julia (2008), and the other from her cookbook editor, Judith Jones’ The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (2008).
Plugging one more off the beaten path site, I recommend a stop at the National Botanic Center, just down the hill from the Library of Congress. In December, the annual model train display is revealed. For 2014, the theme was lighthouses and sailing ships. It’s a wonderful sanctuary–interesting, and educational.
Washington, DC is such a fertile site for so many narratives: the Civil War, Civil Rights, presidential and Founding Mothers. Here’s to fruitful reading in the District of Columbia.