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Get Lit

Edgar Allan Poe penned his last complete poem, a lament for “Annabel Lee,” then met his fate on a dark Fells Point street. H.L. Mencken earned the title “Sage of Baltimore” in the days he filed his columns for The Baltimore Sun, and Upton Sinclair encountered playground “jungles” as a school kid here. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald sipped gin rickeys at a speakeasy (now the Owl Bar) in The Belvedere Hotel.

Yet Baltimore claims latter-day literati too—from Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist) to Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October), the latter now an owner of the Orioles. No surprise that bookworms encounter “novel” scenes in neighborhoods all across town.

Two historic libraries bless the genteel precincts of Mount Vernon. In 1860 the George Peabody Library opened with the mandate to compile the “best and latest literature in all branches of knowledge except law and medicine.”

Now 300,000 volumes later (most of them from the 18th and 19th centuries), the Peabody’s extensive stacks remain open for visitors to browse. Five tiers of ornate cast-iron balconies rise 61 feet to a dramatic skylight.

Nearby the Enoch Pratt Free Central Library celebrates its 125th anniversary. In 1882 businessman Pratt gave the city $1,058,333 to endow one of the nation’s first public libraries, “for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color.”

Now one of 24 branches, this original library invites chess players to test wits on a grand-scale game board. A bank-style vault holds treasures like a lock of Edgar Allan Poe’s hair and even handwritten lyrics by Tupac Shakur.

And, per Pratt’s wishes, the library serves everyone from neighborhood youth to TV writer David Simon and Nancy Pelosi, daughter of a former city mayor.

Every September Mount Vernon Place hosts a block party for book lovers. The free Baltimore Book Festival (September 23 to 25) attracts more than 100 writers and editors who mingle with attendees at readings, lectures, signings, vendor tents, book swaps, walking tours, cooking demos, storytelling sessions and street performances.

This year’s lineup of authors includes Terry McMillan (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Baltimore’s own Laura Lippman (What the Dead Know). See www.baltimorebookfestival.com.

In novels like Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler documents life in the neighborhood of Roland Park in north Baltimore. The leafy zone’s other claim to fame: It was designed by Edward Bouton and Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. as America’s first planned garden suburb. Though Tyler devotees have little chance of glimpsing the reclusive writer, Roland Park offers real-time walks through the scenes of her novels.

Other destinations for literary pilgrims: the Mencken Room in the Enoch Pratt library, which opens only on Mencken Day, September 10 this year (see www.mencken.org), and, of course, the sites devoted to Edgar Allan Poe—his onetime residence and grave.

“The Art of the Writing Instrument from Paris to Persia,” an exhibition at The Walters Museum gives historic perspective. Among tools of the trade: knives, scissors, an ornate pen case and writing desks, many embellished by precious materials like gold, silver, gems and mother-of-pearl.

At least one work in the Baltimore Mural Program celebrates reading—a color-rich wall by Tom Miller (1945-2000), at the corner of North Avenue and Harford Road.

George Peabody Library, 17 East Mount Vernon Pl., www.library.jhu.edu
Enoch Pratt Free Central Library, 400 Cathedral St., 410.396.5430, www.prattlibrary.org