Sunday, September 17, 2006

Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee

Look around your house, in the kitchen, and in your garage. Where does all your stuff come from? Who gets raw goods from the point of origin to the manufacturer and who moves finished goods to you? Think about all the stuff in the stores and for sale on the web. There must be many people involved in the delivery effort. In a series of essay in Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee writes about the out-of-the-public-eye people moving goods across the country.

McPhee's method of discovery is to invite himself on a trip. In Uncommon Carriers, he travels across the U.S. in the purple cab of a shiny silver tanker truck carrying hazmats (hazardous materials); up the Illinois River on a towboat pushing fifteen barges loaded with pig iron, steel coils, furnace coke, and fertilizer; with a truckload of lobsters from Nova Scotia to a holding facility outside the UPS hub in Louisville, Kentucky; and on a coal train from Kansas to Wyoming. He also visits a ship steering school in Port Revel, France, and he and his son-in-law recreate a canalboat trip taken by Henry David Thoreau and his brother John in 1839.

In the course of his travels, he works alongside many people: a fastidiously clean truck driver, student ship captains working on reduced scale models, barge hands killing time, UPS employees moving goods through a huge sorting center, and train engineers trying to deliver their trains on time. Because of their work they all have strange hours and federal regulations to meet. They sleep when they can, know where to eat, and often go days or weeks without seeing their families (if they have any).

Some readers may find some technical aspects of the book tedious. If you do, skim until the author describes people again. They have some surprising experiences and observations. He also includes interesting historical tidbits, such as the story of World War II submarines built in Wisconsin using the Illinois River in their trek to the Gulf of Mexico.

Anyone interested in corporate business should read "Out in the Sort," which tells how UPS has diversified its business and now fixes computers and maintains inventories for mail-order firms. The company also runs its own university for its employees.
Uncommon Carriers is a good read for anyone interested in American culture and labor issues.

McPhee, John. Uncommon Carriers. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. ISBN 0374280398


Library Lady said...

Ew, I just broke a review rule and read your review before writing my own! I hope I can forget it and come fresh to writing tomorrow night.

You are so right about personalities versus histories. I zoned out reading about cubic feet and pounds of pressure per square inch, also. (Not exactly, but I’m sure you know what I mean.) I did like his explanations for everyday work slang like the “duckpond” in “Tight-Assed River.”

Did you realize Peter Sis created the cover! Maggie :-)

PS I'm not telling you what I'm reading lest you beat me to another punch. ;-)

ricklibrarian said...


I look forward to reading your review. I know it will have a frsh perspective.


Duke said...

Mcphee is a special writer. This is a great book. Thanks for your blog.