Elizabeth Waibel works in communications in the D.C. area. Her laptop has been broken for months, so she gets a lot of reading done. She once did an internship located mostly in the basement of the Folger library.
Washington, D.C., may be better known for Supreme Court briefs than its literary hangouts, but the District is also home to many universities, flourishing independent bookstores, and the largest library in the world. Julia Child lived in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood, both before and after a stint in France that inspired her work on the revolutionary cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Its museums and archives are home to the founding documents of America and some of its most iconic movie memorabilia.
When Tricia visited me in the D.C. suburbs in 2013, short on time, we decided on a literary theme to narrow down our options of places to visit and to indulge our mutual love of books. Whenever we had trouble deciding what to do, we picked the activity that involved the most books — problem solved. As an indecisive person, I loved delegating decisions to a pre-determined theme, and I also loved having an excuse to watch a Shakespeare episode of “Doctor Who” when we got tired of exploring.
Here, in no particular order, are a few of the places we visited, plus a few I’ve discovered since then.
Library of Congress, Jefferson Building: Few libraries, in my opinion, express the appropriate reverence for books, but the Jefferson Building is one of them. Its walls and ceilings pay homage to great thinkers and writers like Herodotus, Plato, and Homer, as well as famous literary quotations. With its white marble columns and gilded mosaics, it is the kind of temple to knowledge that an Enlightenment thinker like Jefferson could be proud of. It also holds Jefferson’s personal library, which formed the foundation of the original Library of Congress. Although many of the books burned in a fire long ago, the library is restoring the collection by searching for replacement volumes to sit alongside the remaining original books.
Folger Shakespeare Library: Across the street from the Library of Congress is the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the largest collection of Shakespeare’s First Folios in the world. Most Saturdays at noon, visitors (with reservations) can take a guided tour of the reading room, where scholars come from around the world to study Shakespeare and his times. The room is designed to look like a Tudor manor hall, with a stained glass window showing the seven ages of man from “As You Like It.” A knowledgeable docent can tell you all about the history of the library, which was founded by a private collector and Shakespeare enthusiast in 1932. After the tour, see the changing exhibits in the main hall, one of the First Folios, or a play in the library’s theater.
Politics & Prose Bookstore: This is perhaps the best-known independent bookstore in D.C. It’s the region’s go-to stop for famous writers making stops on their book tours, has a decent coffee shop in the basement, and has even been visited by President Obama getting a head start on his holiday shopping.
St. Mary’s cemetery: Would you believe that Tricia only came to visit me because she heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald was buried in the next town over? If not, you have greatly underestimated her enthusiasm for the great American novelist, especially as embodied by Tom Hiddleston in the movie “Midnight in Paris.” There’s no evidence Fitzgerald spent any significant time in Rockville, Md., but family ties brought the body to rest here, where pilgrims leave poems and pennies and empty liquor bottles on his and Zelda’s grave marker. It’s outside a working church, so if you do go, please be respectful to the local worshipers — no late-night drinking parties with the jazz age’s most famous tragic couple.
Capitol Hill Books: I love most used bookstores, but this one is a special delight. Mounds of books are stacked three deep from floor to ceiling on three floors of a renovated house near Washington’s Eastern Market. The owner, who has affixed handwritten signs with snide remarks to many of the bookshelves, seems to know where to find just about anything, hopefully including any shoppers who get misplaced between the music and cooking sections in the basement.
George Peabody Library: Unfortunately, I didn’t know this library existed when Tricia came to visit, and I haven’t yet made it up to Baltimore to check it out. But just look at the photos! That’s got to be worth a return trip! (Right, Tricia?)
Obviously, yes! I’m always ready for more book adventures and more Elizabeth Waibel. If you would also like more of her witty intelligence, follow her on Twitter @lizwaibel.