After living in New York for a year and a half, I miss San Francisco’s excellent used bookstores. I feel lucky to work just half a block from The Strand, but there’s something about a small bookstore’s curated selection of used books that makes browsing more fun.
I was working in SF last week when I happened into Aardvark Books one night after dinner. Aardvark boasts a great “recent arrivals” section, just a few shelves long but brimming with excellent, inexpensive reads. I randomly picked up a hardcover copy of John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, based mostly on its excellent cover art and a vague recollection of having read some of his work in the New Yorker. (It helped that some bookstore employee wrote in pencil on the first page, “Pretty good!”)
It was a lucky find. Uncommon Carriers explores freight transport and the people who work America’s trucks, barges, ships, planes, and trains, day and night. This might sound boring at first glance, but McPhee’s writing is strangely hypnotic and enthralling.
One piece in particular, Out in the Sort, kept me up late last night. The piece begins with a detailed description of a lobster-catching operation in Newfoundland, and uses the lobster company’s transport needs as a segue into a deconstruction of how UPS operates. Describing their worldwide hub in Louisville, Kentucky, McPhee writes:
This labyrinth, which outthinks the people who employ it, is something like the interior of the computers that run it. Like printed circuitry, seven great loops, each a thousand feet around, are superposed at right angles above other loops… Unending sequences of letters and small packages zip around these loops, while the larger packages follow one another on the belts, each package tailgating the one in front of it but electronically forbidden to touch it… Collectively, the loops are like the circuits in the motherboards among the interface cards of a central processing unit wherein whole packages seeking specific airplanes are ones and zeroes moving through the chips.
There’s too much to glean from the piece (and from the book) for a short blog post, but I’ll pick a few tidbits. We learn that UPS employs college students to deal with “exceptions”—packages that require human intervention. When the company experienced difficulty hiring enough students, it founded and endowed a college of its own, Metropolitan College, in concert with the University of Louisville and other local schools. UPS employees also service Toshiba laptops on-site, and keep the largest supply of Bentley parts in the world. McPhee’s great writing and sense of humor keep everything interesting.
There are hundreds of other fascinating details. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read Out in the Sort on newyorker.com. If not, I managed to find a copy online, which you can download from Mediafire while it lasts. Either way, if this sounds at all interesting to you, you should find a copy of Uncommon Carriers. I know I’ll be looking for more McPhee titles next time I hit a used bookstore.