Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review: "Washington Schlepped Here," by Christopher Buckley (2003)

Christopher Buckley, "Washington Schlepped Here," 2003.

Christopher Buckley.
I just finished reading Christopher Buckley’s 2003 guide to walking around Washington, D.C., the cleverly titled “Washington Schlepped Here.” (The title is a play on the phrase “George Washington slept here,” with schlep being the Yiddish word for haul or carry, or a tedious journey.) Buckley, most famous for his satirical political novels, brings his usual wit to this travel guide, which makes for an amusing read. But don’t think that Buckley is only using the book to make jokes. The five pages of sources and bibliography shows that Buckley took the time to do his research.  “Washington Schlepped Here,” is a slim book, it’s only about 150 pages, and in it Buckley takes us on four walks around the nation’s capital, pointing out the important sites and revealing historical tidbits and trivia behind them. I spent a semester in Washington, D.C., at American University during college, so it was fun for me to revisit the city through this book. And I’m a big history buff, so all of the anecdotes were very interesting. 

It’s very clear from this book how much Buckley truly loves D.C. As the “about the author” section says, “Christopher Buckley moved to Washington, D.C., in 1981, intending to remain there for one year. He is still there.” For me, the most interesting parts of “Washington Schlepped Here,” were Buckley’s personal reminiscences about the city. Buckley, the son of conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley, Jr., moved to D.C. in 1981 to work as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Buckley has several amusing anecdotes from his time working for Vice President Bush in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House. Buckley admits that the OEOB, now renamed the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, is his favorite building in Washington, D.C., no doubt in part because of his personal connection with it. 

Buckley, like his father, has a razor-sharp wit and a penchant for obscure words which might occasionally send you to the dictionary. It was when I was reading Buckley’s wonderful memoir “Losing Mum and Pup,” this fall that I felt compelled to download the free Merriam-Webster dictionary app on my IPhone, rather than lug the cumbersome print version of it around with me and stop every page or so and look up every unfamiliar word. 

One of my favorite parts of “Washington Schlepped Here,” was Buckley’s annoyance at the way visitors are treated at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, also known as the U.S. Mint. Here’s Buckley after his tour of the Mint:

“You can’t miss the Jefferson Memorial so I won’t harass you with directions. But first you’ll have to go retrieve your small shoulder bag from the tree where you hid it, because the Praetorian Guard at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing declared it technically ‘not a woman’s purse’ and therefore likely to contain a homemade nuclear device.” (P. 93)

Buckley also had me laughing when he described the National Museum of Natural History:

“Unless paleontology is your bag, or you’re with children, you might want to move efficiently through ‘Life in the Ancient Seas’ (wet and terrifying) and even ‘The World’s Largest Invertebrate’ (thoroughly revolting). This would be the squid that, I have to say, almost made me bring up my lunchtime chicken wrap.” (P. 72)

Buckley writes well about art as he leads us through some of his favorite paintings at the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art was one of my favorite places in D.C.; I visited it many times during my semester there. I loved the art inside the National Gallery and the fact that admission is free meant I could return as often as I pleased. The architecture of both National Gallery buildings is lovely to look at, as I.M. Pei’s modern East building contrasts nicely with the classic West building, which has a beautiful rotunda with a sculpture of Mercury at the center of it. The first time I walked up the stairs and entered the rotunda I was awestruck by the beauty of the space.

I would recommend “Washington Schlepped Here,” to anyone who is going to visit D.C., and to anyone who simply wants to know more of the history behind the city. If you are going to D.C., I would also recommend that you get a more traditional guide book, one with the hours of attractions, restaurants and hotels, things like that. And you’ll certainly need a good map, or at the very least a good GPS on your phone. But if you’re looking for more than a traditional guide book, you should pick up “Washington Schlepped Here,” you’ll definitely be entertained.