The Best Books About DC, According to a DC Bookseller
If you want to know a city, read fiction about the city
Some stereotypes of Washington, DC are entirely accurate — among them the claim that we’re a well-read city. Most every neighborhood has a fantastic, independent bookstore. A standout in our book scene is Capitol Hill Books. For over 30 years the cramped (it’s a compliment) space has offered a book-filled respite just blocks from the United States Capitol, the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.
We spoke with Kyle Burk, co-owner of Capitol Hill Books, about the best books about DC. His recommendations do not not contain any books about the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, FBI or anything else this town is typically known for.
For truth in fiction
Early in our conversation, Burk made clear that the best way to understand any place, especially DC, is through fiction.
“A great way to kind of get to know the city is through fiction,” Burk says. “Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones is kind of classic DC literature. It’s a book of short stories that focus mainly on the African-American community and DC around the time that he was growing up. The stories are all written with a lot of care and love — it’s just fantastic. From a professional standpoint, this is the best fiction set in DC.”
Burk also gave us a slightly newer recommendation: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu should help residents understand the current city. “He’s of Ethiopian origin like so many people in DC, and he writes about in that novel. It kind of centers on the gentrification of Logan Circle. That’s another cool DC fiction book that sort of helps you learn about the city and some of the issues it’s dealing with.”
For the mystery
If you’re more interested in a whodunit, Burk has some suggestions.
“You can go old school with Margaret Truman,” Burk says. “She has the Murder series, where it’s Murder in Georgetown, Murder on Capitol Hill, etc. Good if you’re looking for a more Agatha Christie type thing.”
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For something equally murdery but a bit darker, Burk has another recommendation: “George Pelecanos’s books span from the ’60s all the way up to the present day,” he says. “He has a newer series out that takes place in a sort of contemporary D.C.” Good for fans of The Wire, a show Pelecanos worked on as a producer.
One of Burk’s newest book picks is sort of a mystery, sort of magical realism. Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejide has a very thin line between reality and the magical world. “It’s about a sort of taxi driver ferrying people from Anacostia, across the river, towards downtown,” he says. Some reviewers have compared Yejide’s writing to Toni Morrison and Neil Gaiman.
For the historian
Some people just won’t read fiction. So we asked Burk for some modern history books that’ll help the reader understand the “real” DC. His first recommendation, Dream City, by Tom Sherwood and Harry Jaffe, may sound familiar to any regular WAMU listener.
“You might know these guys, they’re a couple of journalists,” Burk explains. “Tom Sherwood was on The Kojo Show for a really long time [The Kojo Nnamdi Show ran on WAMU from 1999 until 2021.] The book tells the story of DC during the Marion Barry years. It was out of print for a long time and hard to find, but they recently reissued it a couple of years ago.”
For a more current history book, Burk recommends Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove. “It starts basically with the native people that lived around the Anacostia and goes all the way up to the present day,” he explains. “It’s another great, comprehensive, history of DC.”
For the foodie
Another way to understand DC is with a cookbook. Or at least a book about food. Burk shines a light on a well-known food writer who may not be associated with the city from which he hails. “Michael W. Twitty is a local,” he says. “The Cooking Gene is a really great book about the history of African-American food. And also he’s Jewish. He writes a lot about Jewish cuisine.”
Twitty’s newest offering, Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew was named 2022 Jewish Book of the Year by the Jewish Book Council.
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