Uncommon Carriers

ISBN: 0374280398
ISBN 13: 9780374280390
By: John McPhee

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About this book

What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, at his adventurous best, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation. Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent considerable time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. Uncommon Carriers is his sketchbook of them and of his journeys with them. He rides from Atlanta to Tacoma alongside Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot,eighteen-wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmats. McPhee attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for a tuition of $15,000 a week, skippers of the largest ocean ships refine their capabilities in twenty-foot scale models. He goes up the "tight-assed" Illinois River on a"towboat" pushing a triple string of barges, the overall vessel being "a good deal longer than the Titanic." And he travels by canoe up the canal-and-lock commercial waterways traveled by Henry David Thoreau and his brother, John,in a homemade skiff in 1839.Uncommon Carriers is classic work by McPhee, in prose distinguished, as always, by its author's warm humor, keen insight, and rich sense of human character.

Reader's Thoughts

Adam Carlson

a really interesting look at the lives of people we don't often interact with. there were real nuggets. like the section one about Dan Ainsworth, chemical tanker driver. after reading the omnivore's dillemna, i particularly liked reading about UPS and its globalized methods of shipping one box, before 9/11, from one floor on the world trade center to UPS's central shipping facility, in kentucky, back to a different floor in the world trade center. the people in this book are heroic people with amazing skills. but mcphee doesn't tie the whole story together. it ends rather abruptly. some sections were either too technical or just too slow. and the section on canoing up the merrimack river, just like thoreau, just shouldn't have been in the book.

Steven Yenzer

A fascinating series of essays about trucking, trains, river barges, and other modes of American transport. Despite the name, most of these carriers are not uncommon, but are responsible for moving a big proportion of American resources throughout the country. I loved learning about these modes of transportation and the people who operate them, but McPhee's skill at evoking these characters is marred by his pretentious prose. He loves to dig into the jargon of these industries, and often walks the line between immersion and opacity. His expansive vocabulary often comes into use as well, forcing me to consult a dictionary (or move on, hoping my lack of understanding won't matter).

Howard Olsen

John McPhee is one of my favorite New Yorker writers. This book is a collection of articles whose common theme is the magnitude of the transportation systems that criss-cross America. He hangs out with a long-haul trucker, visits UPS's main hub (through which everything produced by Americans seems to flow), retraces a river journey made by Thoreau, rides a coal train from Wyoming to Georgia, and floats down the Mississippi on a barge. The book is quite intimate, as McPhee focuses on the ordinanry folks who guide these systems; but their sheer scale and scope is ever present, and eventually one is left awe-struck that it works at all.


This author, John McPhee, has pretty cool articles in The New Yorker.Based on those articles he has expanded them into a book.McPhee travels with truck drivers, barge captains, Train Engineers and more, to write about everything involved in how products and resourses make their way to their destinations. Who new how much stuff you have to learn to be a truck driver or how complicated it is to navigate a barge down the Illinois or Mississippi rivers?It's a very interesting read and entertaing to boot.Some people find McPhee's writing a little to thick with insider jargon, but it's kinda fun to me to find out what those words mean and thusly better understand the inner workings of stuff.


(I'm moving a few old reviews over from an abandoned book photo project on Flickr.)An important lesson learned from John McPhee's exquisite little book: I have transportation biases; literary ones, anyway. I could read about trucking till kingdom come; coal train traffic control is also fascinating; slide into a discussion of how packages travel through a UPS sortation center and you'll keep me up till midnight. Ships and boats on the other hand, I'd apparently much rather be on than read about. This seems a pity, but may explain why I have never been able to finish reading Moby Dick. Give me more of trucker Don Ainsworth, though: whip-smart, truck-proud, boot-collecting, Wall Street Journal and Paris Review-reading Don Ainsworth. I would ride a thousand miles with him. Favorite sentences:"If you would like to torture someone, either drip water on him for thirty-six hours or take him up the Coal Line.""Triaged, the packets and packages ride up the concourse and into the core—the rectangular space with a footprint of twenty-eight acres where a package picks up speed as it moves from one to another set of east-west and north-south loops and is pushed, shoved, stopped, started, carried, routed, rerouted, diverted, guided, and conducted to belts that lead to belts that relate not only to the region, state, county, community, and neighborhood it is going to but also, in some crowded cities, to the street and block.""This evolves into an exchange of French and American expressions for dying. With uninventive phrases like 'kicked the bucket,' 'bought the farm,' and so forth, the Americans quickly run up something of a trade deficit, for the French—over the Camembert—mention the gentle announcement 'He has stopped eating,' and add to that what appears to be the ultimate word on this topic: 'He has swallowed his birth certificate."

Gnarly Authenticity .

Uncommon Carriers was my introduction to John McPhee, a writer constantly pushed on me by the algorithims at goodreads and amazon; which are onto my love of work narratives and trades stories. I'm interested in writing about any occupation relating to the physical world, from the most mundane to the most bizarre, as long as the writing is well-done. The first piece, a account of the life of a long-distance hazmat trucker, was so strong that I had to keep pausing and thinking, "wow, those goodreads/bezos algorithims are really good. Scary, even. This essay could have been custom-written to please me."The next several essays were also good, but McPhee's detached-observer stance, which was delightful at first, slowly began to grate as it became apparent that he only really enjoys the company of educated and bookish people like himself. His sneering treatment of the aspirational tugboat captain, with his naff motivational-speaker tapes and his rental units, was nicely concealed by a scrim of irony, and at this point, I began to think, despite my fascination with the details of tugboat-handling, that I didn't much like John McPhee. This impression was crystallized by the overly-long centerpiece of the book, a boring, sub-William LeastHeat Moon travelogue, complete with the requisite well-researched historical details, about a canoe trip on the Concord River. The travelogue quickly becomes an extended meditation upon the literary qualities of H.D. Thoreau, a topic which does not interest me in the slightest. I don't care about writers and their opinions of other writers and their very fascinating Sebaldian pedantic digressions,which are the products of libraries and books. Still willing to give McPhee the benefit of the doubt, I read the next piece, which was a wide-eyed recounting of the technological marvels of the main UPS sorting center in Louisville KY. I felt the mustached ghost of Tom Friedman looming over my shoulder for the entire duration.Four stars for the first piece, two for the one on Thoreau, and three for rest of the book, which is, to be fair, pretty good for what it is. Net, three stars.

Jeremy Lyon

John McPhee always starts and ends his stories in the middle. You have to work to follow him, but the wonderful thing is that it doesn't feel like work. It feels like you're sitting next to him in the cab of a coal train listening in as he banters with the engineer, and that if you pay attention, you'll get the inside jokes they're trading."Uncommon Carriers" in particular is great fun, filled with big trucks, big trains and big ships. This is a book about freight transportation, and reading it fees a little bit like looking behind a stage curtain. You know freight gets moved, but how is a lot more complicated, on a much bigger scale, then you ever imagined.


I'd really give this 3.5 stars. There are 6 parts/chapters in which McPhee travels along with operators of a semi-truck, two parts on barges/tows, a coal train, inside the UPS hub, and one incongruent chapter on a trip up the Merrimack River in a canoe, retracing the steps of HD Thoreau. That part was uncharacteristically poorly written, and didn't fit in at all with the remainder of the book; one wonders if the loose pages of his journal accidentally got sent into the publisher... The parts on transportation involving semis, coal trains, and the UPS hub were very interesting and well written, however, were more choppy and left you wanting a more thorough reading. The parts on the tows/barges were not as clear to me as I would have liked, I felt a little lost in all the terminology, without ample explanation. Overall this could have been a much better book had the canoe trip been tossed out, and had much more depth been added to the whole thing. Not one of McPhee's finest, though it did have a lot of potential. This was my first McPhee book that was not directly or indirectly geology related, and while it didn't quite meet my expectations, I don't think I will give up on him. His ability to make anything and everything interesting is truly amazing.


Wonderful character sketches, insight into what makes some "simple" transfer of goods actually happen and some eye-opening looks at the worlds of UPS, lobster delivery, coal trains and barge traffic on the Illinois River. The section tracing Thoreau's path up some New England rivers was a little slow and not in character with the rest of the book. Always a lot of information in a John McPhee book, communicated in a conversational tone, but at the end you've learned something and you want to tell somebody. For instance, the largest cola-burning power plant in the country -- in Georgia -- consumes three trains of hundred-plus cars each day carrying coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. It's enough to make even the most ardent anti-climate change advocate question our resource use.


John McPhee specializes, like Tracy Kidder, in detailed and ruminative reportages about things and people we see everyday, but seldom think about. In this collection of articles, he primarily studies transportation, describing the workings of long-distance trucking, coal trains, cargo ships, barges and a memorable case study of the workings of "The Sort", UPS' humongous sorting facility in Loisville, Kentucky.Moving writing, quite literally. An example for any academic writer trying to explain what makes modern society tick.More at my blog.

April Brown

Notes for the reader: From the title, I was expecting something a bit different. This book does not fit the definition of fiction, and yet was almost more satisfying in many ways than much of fiction today. My biggest issue was when the author would become lost and use a string of incomprehensible and unrecognizable words gleaned from a thesaurus, and not everyday talk. And yet, he made most of the different modes of transportation as readable as possible to a person who had no background in planes, trains, ships, or canoes.What ages would I recommend it too? – Ten and up.Length? – Several days.Characters? – Memorable, several characters.Setting? – Real World across the U.S.Written approximately? – 2006.Does the story leave questions in the readers mind? – Ready to read more.Any issues the author (or a more recent publisher) should cover? No.Short storyline: A descriptive trek around the world by truck, train, and boat, with a visit to the UPS hub to discuss plane travel as well.

Andrew Saul

This is a collection of articles McPhee wrote on the transportation industry in the US. As a result the book is up and down as regards how interesting each are. I skipped the bit with him in a kayak on the river as if I hadn't I would've read anymore of the book.The chapters I liked best were on trucking and the river barges. The coal train chapter was good (the original reason I had come to the book), but ponderous in parts too. The UPS section was better but suffered from the same affliction. When it's good, this book is great and a real insight into how exactly these industries work; warts and all. If you are prepared to skip chapters that interest you then there's a lot of good to be had from this book.

Bookmarks Magazine

Princeton University professor and essay writer John McPhee has a knack for spinning dull-sounding subjects into narrative gold. Innocuously titled tomes like the Pulitzer Prize?winning Annals of the Former World yield magnificent tales, baroque with exceptional details that make the curious giddy. The seven essays included in his 27th book (many first published in the New Yorker) offer a rich portrait of the sundry methods and people that get things from there to here, from canoe (Thoreau's travel up the Concord in 1839) to 18-wheel tanker trunk. That McPhee's theme is not overtly deeper bothered a few reviewers, as did the excessive detail. Yet at the end of the road, there's no better tour guide to these often overlooked engines of American commerce.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.


Non-fiction descriptions of chemical tankers, coal trains, 747's filled with lobsters, and minature tanker liners. It was funny and indulged my curiosity without talking down to me.

Clifton Bullard

How much do you know about the army of 18-wheelers thundering down every American highway at all hours of the day and night? How much thought do you give to your ability to select a live New Brunswick lobster at any seafood restaurant in Oklahoma?Great nonfiction illuminates the unseen, unnoticed world surrounding us. Uncommon Carriers begins and ends with a trip in an 18-wheeler, and in between travels by rail, tug and plane. In this collection of shortish essays, John McPhee takes us inside the strange everyday world of freight transportation. My favorite story is "In the Sort," about UPS's shipping hub in Kentucky, closely followed by one about a school for ship's captains located on a small pond in the Alps. Not only is the material fascinating but McPhee is also a stylist of the highest order -- his prose is so masterfully wrought as to become transparent.

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