Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee
As someone who is interested in logistics, largely from my own personal experience, I found this book to be deeply interesting. The author clearly has some personal interest in logistics as well, and knowing a bit about the back story of this book as I do, I found a few aspects of the book to be highly interesting. For one, the author keeps a fair amount close to the vest, such as the difficulty he had in actually persuading companies that it would be a good idea to let a journalist/writer like himself on the boats to talk to the people who worked in logistics. If you look at the book, you don’t get a sense of the deliberate design of his structure, or of the work it took in setting up the trips, or even the timing of the particular trips (except that there are two trips with the enjoyable truck driver who bookends the story, and it is clear which one is first and which is a follow-up trip). The amount of time it took to work on the project is unknown, and the work even manages to jump back in time and reflect on earlier writings about some of the places where the author went, all of which makes for a typically enjoyable McPhee experience.
This book consists of seven chapters that are connected essays dealing with the subject of logistics, all of them told in an earthy and humorous manner by noted writer John McPhee. The first of the essays tells of a trip that McPhee took from northern Georgia to Washington with a truck driver, where he learns about the economics and culture of truck driving, and enjoys the way that truck drivers operate, where they eat and sleep, how much they obey the rules, and so on. After that comes a visit to Port Revel, where various people from all over the world learn how to better manage ships and become better pilots. This leads to an essay on barges who travel up and down the Illinois river dealing with the riparian logistics of the greater Mississippi basin, and how much work it is to manage such a task successfully. The author spends some time following the trail of the Thoreau brothers down the Concord and Merrimack rivers and examines how much has changed today from the mid 19th century. McPhee spends some time in the sort looking at deskilling and the way that UPS has sought to profit from being a logistics company of many talents and abilities, something I have some experience with. He also goes to a coal train and sees how Wyoming coal is brought to power plants around the USA before closing with a return trip with the opening trucker, where he compares truck driving in the East and in the West.
Overall, there is a great deal to appreciate about this particular book. The author shows himself interested in logistics in a broad perspective and has enough sensitivity to sympathetically portray the various people he discusses. Whether he is dealing with single men driving trucks, or married men (and women) working on boats, or single women sorting packages for UPS, McPhee is a sympathetic viewer and listener of their daily lives and someone who is able to convey the truths of their working lives and how it affects their personal lives and how and why they work in logistics in very relatable ways. That general good nature allows these essays to shine and gives the reader a better understanding of the sort of people on whom we depend for so much that we use in our lives, most of which is brought to us through supply chains and carried in boats and on trucks and trains by logistics workers who in many ways are people not unlike ourselves. And for those of us who have personal experience in dealing with logistics, it is comforting to have these sketches of life on the rivers and seas and roads and railroads of the world where so many goods are carried for us and for our neighbors.