Washington monuments, word by word

January 15, 1995|By L. D. Buckner

Clint W. Ensign is a godsend for serious sightseers who know how it is to spend the day squinting and moving their lips as they try to read the inscriptions on Washington's monuments. Not only has Mr. Ensign painstakingly recorded the words of wisdom from 27 sites in the nation's capital, he offers tight histories of each site that help put the quotations in context and make the overpriced, almost pocket-sized book fascinating even for the casual nontourist reader.

In an overly humble preface, the author explains how he chose which inscriptions, how he added punctuation to some passages to make them more readable, why he didn't give the White House its own chapter . . . and on and on. He even slips in an unsettling pre-emptive apology in case there are any errors!

While it's interesting to know that the White House has only one inscription ("I pray to Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and ALL that shall hereafter Inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof."), the preface limps. Not to worry, though. Mr. Ensign had the best of material to work with in the pages that follow.

The writings are from sources as varied as America itself, including: John Adams (doing honors in the White House and elsewhere), Mary McLeod Bethune, the Bible, Charles Dickens, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Confucius, Abraham Lincoln, Sharitarish Pawnee, Carl Sandburg, William Shakespeare, Henry VII, Frederick Douglass and assorted Roosevelts and Kennedys. Predictably and by no fault of Mr. Ensign's, there is no glut of women and minor ities among the quoted.

"Inscriptions" has a comprehensive index of sites, sources and designers that makes every bit of monumental wisdom easy to find.

No squinting necessary.

Ms. Buckner is an editor on the features copy desk.

Title: "Inscriptions of a Nation: Collected Quotations from Washington Monuments"

Author: Clint W. Ensign

Publisher: Congressional Quarterly

Length, price: 119 pages, $14.95

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