You can put yourself in the mood for a visit to Washington by reading a few of the great novels set in the capital, memoirs and histories by some of the city's more famous residents, and other guidebooks, whose topics supplement what you learn in these pages.
By far the most popular kind of Washington book being published these days is the insider's memoir, a genre unto itself. Why not start with President Barack Obama's own bestsellers, The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father?
If you're looking for some insight into the previous administration, you've got a lot to choose from, including one from former President George W. Bush, himself, Decision Points, another by former First Lady Laura Bush, Spoken from the Heart, and Bob Woodward's The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008.
Two memoir musts that reveal how the powerful operate in Washington are these two tales by inveterate insiders, both deceased: Personal History, by Katharine Graham, who for many years was publisher of the Washington Post; and Washington, by Graham's close friend and colleague, Meg Greenfield, a columnist and editor at the Washington Post for more than 30 years.
Fiction lovers might pick up works by Edward P. Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose short-story collections, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children, will take you beyond D.C.'s political and tourist personas, into the neighborhoods and everyday lives of African Americans; books by Ward Just, including his short-story collection, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert; Ann Berne's A Crime in the Neighborhood; Marita Golden's The Edge of Heaven; Allen Drury's Advise and Consent; or one of the growing number of mysteries whose plot revolves around the capital, such as Margaret Truman's Murder at the Smithsonian or George Pelicanos's hard-core thrillers that, like Edward Jones's stories, take you to parts of the city you'll never see as a tourist: The Way Home and The Turnaround are two of his latest.
If you're keen on learning more about the history of the nation's capital, you might try Arthur Schlesinger's The Birth of the Nation, F. Cary's Urban Odyssey, David Brinkley's Washington at War, and Douglas E. Evelyn and Paul Dickson's On This Spot, which traces the history of the city by revealing exactly what took place at specific locations -- "on this spot" -- in years gone by, neighborhood by neighborhood.
And here's a special one I'll recommend: The Great Decision: Jefferson, Adams, Marshall and the Battle for the Supreme Court, by Cliff Sloan and David McKean, which tells the lively story of Marbury v. Madison, the case that established the precedent for the Supreme Court's authority in its role as the judicial branch of government -- and describes life in the capital in the early 1800s as the story proceeds. (Cliff's my brother-in-law.)
For hilarious takes on the capital, read Christopher Buckley's Washington Schlepped Here: Walking in the Nation's Capital, an irreverent sendup of the city's most famous attractions and characters, its anecdotes all true. And don't miss Buckley's equally humorous Washington-based novels, The White House Mess, No Way to Treat a First Lady, and Thank You for Smoking.
Hollywood has long used Washington as a setting and politicians as actors, so much so that some refer to D.C. as "Hollywood on the Potomac." Starting in 1915 with Birth of a Nation, the lineup includes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), All the King's Men (1949), Advise and Consent (1962), All the President's Men (1972), and Wag the Dog (1998). These represent only a fraction of the films based in Washington, whose popularity as a subject and location only grows and grows. If you're really interested, you can sign up for an On Locations tour (www.screentours.com/tour.php/dc) to many cinematic landmarks.
Among recent releases and coming attractions are the following:
The Lost Symbol is the film version of Dan Brown's bestseller of the same name and covers a lot of real D.C. territory, which you can follow on your own with the aid of this handy guide: www.washington.org/visiting/experience-dc/the-lost-symbol.
The Ides of March, a political drama in which a young communications director works for an up-and-coming presidential candidate, stars Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, who also directs the film.
Salt features Angelina Jolie as a CIA spy who is accused of being a double agent, spying for the Russians. Also stars Liev Schreiber.
How Do You Know? is a romantic comedy involving a love triangle, with Reese Witherspoon the object of affection for both Owen Wilson, playing a pitcher for D.C.'s baseball team, and Paul Rudd, playing a business executive.
The drama Fair Game tells the 2003 story of former CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose cover was blown during a political contretemps involving the Bush White House and Plame's husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had written op-ed articles accusing the administration of manipulating information to justify going to war in Iraq. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are the big names here.
State of Play is an adaptation of the BBC miniseries by the same name, and stars Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, and Helen Mirren in a plot that involves investigative reporters trying to solve the murder of a congressman's mistress.
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian is a sequel to the blockbuster starring Ben Stiller.
Burn After Reading is a Coen Brothers production, which explains why it's described as a "dark comedy-thriller." George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand star.
Get Smart, the Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway comedy, is based on the classic television series.
Next time you're taking in a movie, note whether the film involves Washington at all, then look for shots of famous landmarks (that really is the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum seen in Night at the Museum 2). And when you're in Washington visiting, keep your eyes peeled for film crews as you tour the city, and who knows? Maybe you'll end up in the film as an extra.
Washington's musical heritage is steeped in jazz and the legendary performances and compositions of native son Duke Ellington, who started his career playing in clubs along historic U Street NW. Washingtonians Pearl Bailey, Jelly Roll Morton, and Shirley Horn all performed here as well, leading this section of U Street to be dubbed "Black Broadway."
An annual 10-day jazz festival in June pays tribute to the Duke, staging concerts in venues all over town. Year-round, the jazz scene lives on, along U Street, but also at clubs in every neighborhood, including, most notably, Blues Alley in Georgetown, where the biggest names in jazz take the stage, continuing the capital's most famous musical tradition.
More recently, a Washingtonian named Chuck Brown pioneered the birth of another music form, "go-go," a forerunner of rap; go-go blends African percussion with funk, jazz, and verbal interplay. Heard the tune "Bustin' Loose"? That's a Chuck Brown original, his first hit.
Surely you've heard about D.C. rapper Wale, who collaborated with Lady Gaga on his video "Chillin," which cuts shots of D.C.'s famous favorite eatery, Ben's Chili Bowl, into his overall mix of D.C. images. Among the big names on the rock scene are the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl and members of the band O.A.R., and on the opera front, the world-famous mezzo-soprano, Denyce Graves, who returns to perform here from time to time.
And Washington offers a distinctly American musical experience in its military bands, one each representing the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, who play for free during the summer at designated locations throughout the city, and are known for their highly professional, wide-ranging performances.
This covers just the tip of the city's fabulous musical scene. For more information,