I find myself suddenly on a plane hurtling towards Washington D.C. because my grandmother, Vera Bettelheim, passed away this past weekend. Although I thought she was stubborn enough to live forever, old age finally caught up with her. My grandmother was, in part, the impetus for starting the blog. She always asked me to send her photographs, however as printing photographs and snail mailing them began to go out of style, her hearing began to go as well. She could no longer hear me over the phone, so I thought putting digital photographs with their story in a readable format online would be a way to still share with her what she wanted to see and hear. This worked in a manner of speaking. Someone had to “get the writing off the computer” (or print the posts) for her so she could read them.
As far as I know, my grandmother’s only hobby was reading. When she called, before she hung up she always asked if I’d read any good book lately. And as her memory went, she often reminded me that she too had been a librarian (I don’t think she really ever understood the difference between librarian and archivist). Unfortunately, by the time I started this blog her mind was not what it used to be and she could no longer take pleasure in books because she couldn’t remember what she had just read. So although we were never able to discuss the books I wrote about, my writing pleased her to no end.
She lived in a suburb of Washington D.C. for the last 40 years, and often asked when I would write a blog post about D.C. Besides a very special outing with my Grandfather to his favorite Washington D.C. bookstore, I have yet to write about the city because I had planned to do it justice at some point by doing an entire tour of Washington D.C. sites found in Dan Brown’s the Lost Symbol, however, as our visits to D.C. are always filled with family gatherings rather than sightseeing, I just never got around to it. So, although this isn’t how I had hoped to introduce Washington D.C. on the blog, in honor of my grandmother, I shall share with you my favorite books, unrelated to politics, that will inspire you to visit Washington D.C.’s National Mall.
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The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, #3) by Dan Brown
Dan Brown’s Washington D.C. murder mystery, The Lost Symbol, is my favorite book when it comes to Washington D.C. Although there’s little character depth or development, what Dan Brown does well is describe each scene so you can see it in your mind playing out, like a screenplay. For example, one of the first scenes in the book *spoilers* professor Robert Langdon finds a rather gruesome object in the middle of the D.C. Capital Building’s rotunda. If you visit the building, you can just imagine the book scene playing out as you stand in the rotunda. This book will take you to several famous buildings around Washington D.C. Unfortunately I have have not had time to do a tour of them myself, but if you would like to do this, I found a DIY Dan Brown Lost Symbol Tour of D.C. at Offbeat Travel.
Murder at the Library of Congress by Margaret Truman
Margaret Truman’s murder mystery will take you to the Library of Congress. Although while visiting the Library you won’t be able to access the study areas without a research project and first applying for a research card, I assure you there’s enough to see touring the main building and its exhibits. And you can see the main reading room from a viewing platform somewhere just below the start of the dome ceiling.
If you walk between the Library of Congress buildings using the underground tunnels, you’ll see the casing of the conveyor belts that carry books from their shelving areas to the reading room. These also feature in a ridiculous scene in The Lost Symbol in which Robert Langdon jumps onto the conveyor to escape. I’m not sure those conveyors are big enough for a person to fit through, but go see them for yourselves and let me know what you think.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
It’s amazing how a little historical insight can completely change your perspective. I’ve been to the National Air and Space Museum it seems like a hundred times. (Everyone always wants to go to the Air and Space museum! When you’re headed to the National Mall with a small brother in tow, he inevitably wants to go see the airplanes. When you’ve got a friend joining you who’s never before been to the National Mall, guess what they want to see first…) I’ve stood in the main gallery and looked up at the Spirit of Saint Louis more times than I care to remember. But have you ever really looked at it? Did you know it’s made of fabric? A wood frame and fabric. That’s all that carried Lindbergh above an ocean. And did you notice that he had no front view? Or really any view to speak of. I never noticed these details until I listened to the audio book of Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927. Bryson starts the book with a history of flight, how it changed the world, and he describes Lindbergh’s harrowing flights. Next time I visit the Air and Space Museum I plan to really examine the planes. Now that I understand their place in history I have a much greater appreciation for them.
Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland
I read this book so long ago I don’t remember much except that it left me with is a love of and fascination with Vermeer’s paintings. This book may inspire you to visit The Vermeer Centrum in Delft as it did me, but if you can’t get there, the National Art Gallery is the next best place. Ever since reading this book, the National Art Gallery has become one of my favorite places to visit on the National Mall. Partly because it is always pleasantly empty of crowds and a cool escape from the outside summer heat, but also because I can spend hours there visiting the Vermeer paintings and observing all the others I find along the way.
I love how vibrant and homey the colors of Vermeer’s paintings appear. The scenes he depicts are often lit by the natural light of a window not in the image and they often appear to be intimate moments that the viewer feels as though they might disturb the painting’s subject. The paintings are also usually pretty small in size, so you can almost miss them if you’re not looking for them. To me this makes them feel almost like a secret that only you know to look for.
If you’d like to do a little more art viewing after the Vermeers, head to the Renaissance painters. Did you know that the blue pigment was expensive for Renaissance painters, as were gold flecks? Take your time closely observing these paintings and make guesses as to how rich the patrons where that commissioned each painting based on the amount of blue and gold found in each. This museum also has the only double sided DaVinci painting. This is a must visit while you’re there.
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Have you read any good Washington D.C. related books? Do you have a non-political Washington D.C. book to add to this list? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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