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


I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author, but it doesn't seem to have an ISBN.I read this as part of my quest to understand how everything is connected to everything else, and how it is economically feasible to create very inexpensive products by shipping materials all over the world. It's a set of essays mostly about shipping modalities, but each essay goes at the subject from a different angle (or several angles).The book doesn't really answer the "how can things be so cheap?" question but it gets me a step closer to the "how everything is connected" part.My favorite chapters were:"A Fleet of One" and "A Fleet of One - II" about a guy who owns a chemical tanker."Tight-Assed River" about small boats that push strings of barges ("longer than the Titanic") up and down the Illinois River"Out in the Sort" about the travels of live lobsters sold by a Nova Scotia company, Clearwater Seafoods (which may make you not want to eat lobster at Asian buffets any more) and the sorting facility at the UPS Worldport facility in Louisville, KY"Coal Train" about 19,000 ton coal-laden trains more than a mile long and the Union Pacific engineers, conductors, and dispatchers who get them where they're going (the dispatchers sometimes quit the job and go into air traffic controlling, because it is easier).There are also chapters about a ship-handling course that uses scale models, and a canoe trip; those are good too but they didn't fascinate me.


Uncommon Carriers invites readers to spend a day in the life of a truck drivers, ocean-going cargo ship and riverbound freight tugboat pilots, train engineers, UPS aviators, and -- just for good measure -- pleasure-canoers sailing the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Aside from the odd inclusion of his retracing Henry David Thoreau's oar-beats, the work is part human interest and part-inside look into the transportation service that keeps the world of goods going round. Some sections are more useful to the latter end than others; his chapter on cargo ship pilots takes place at a training school off the coast of France, and communicates the difficulty of moving across something that has a mind of its own, but nothing about the business of commercial freight. The chapters on river freight and UPS more conducive to understanding the ins and outs of the industry. What Uncommon Carriers offers besides that is the personal aspect of these jobs. McPhee's research is all first-hand: he shares the lives of the men who do these jobs, befriending some and enduring the teasing of others. He's especially fond of the truck driver who carries a chemistry book to help him wash his rig, judges truck stops on whether they carry his beloved Wall Street Journal, and who moonlights as a wordsmith. The account is peppered with many lively characters like him. On whole, this was quite an interesting peek into a world we depend on so much.Related:Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes On Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food On Your Plate. Rose George

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.


I worked myself up to a three star state on this book. I have to say, it is not what I expected. At one point, I was trying to recall what venue recommended the book, and eschew further recommendations from that venue. Thirty or so page digression on Henry David Thoreau was not in my expectations. The author, in this book, was well honed in transitionless writing.On the other hand, there were so many interesting aspects in most of the sections (notwithstanding digressions from what I thought the topic was). For the time and effort invested in the research and preparation, it would have been nice if the the author invested some time in writing a narrative that flowed, rather than what seemed in so many places like free associations on a topic.


This book is a collection of mini-biographies of people in the transportation industry. The first, last, and by far most compelling tells the story of a long-haul trucker -- a driver that owns his own rig and tank, transporting various goods. There's something deeply satisfying about seeing a real expert at work: someone that not only knows how to do their job well, but truly and deeply knows how to handle any eventuality effortlessly. The truck driver in this book is unquestionably an expert of that variety.Unfortunately, the other stories aren't quite as interesting. A few of them are interesting enough -- although not up to the standard of the first one -- but the rest are sub-par. One is about Thoreau's travels with his brother, that the author replicates -- somewhat. It seems out of place, compared to the rest of the pieces, and it's not even that enjoyable to read. There's another piece on UPS, which should have been a highlight (goodness knows that there is a huge untapped mine of stories there) but was only so-so: some parts of that one are enjoyable to read, but those parts are more about UPS's anonymous subcontracting of, well, almost anything (laptop repair, order fulfillment, etc), and not about transportation.In the end, I really enjoyed this book. I just wish the author would have dropped about half of it, and either expanded the rest or found other high-quality segments to replace it.

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).


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.

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.

Pris robichaud

There are two places in the world, home and everywere else,,and everywhere else is the same., 11 Jun 2006 There are two places in the world -- home and everywhere else, and everywhere else is the same.' "The most beautiful truck on earth-Don Ainsworth's present sapphire-drawn convexing elongate stainless steel mirror- get s smidgen over six miles to the gallon. As its sole owner, he not only counts it calories with respect to it gross weight but with regard to the differing fuel structures of the states it traverses. It is much better to take Idaho fuel than phony-assed Oregon fuel. The Idaho fuel includes all the taxes. The Oregon fuel did not. Oregon feints with an attractive price at the pump, but then shoots an uppercut into the ton-mileage." In "Uncommon Carriers" we come to know Don Ainsworth, the intelligent, fastidious owner-driver of a meticulously kept 18-wheeler. John McPhee rides from Atlanta to Washington state with Don Ainsworth, owner and operator of a sixty-five-foot, five-axle, and eighteen wheel chemical tanker carrying hazmets. John McPhee's writing carries us along in the seat with Don and John, and I have a new hero now, Don Ainsworth. A trucker worth his weight in gold and like Reader's Digest's old series, "a most unforgettable character". This book is "a grown-up version of every young boy's and girl's, I might add, fantasy life," This is John McPhee's 28th novel. What John McPhee's books all have in common is that they are about real people in real places. Here, he is out and about with people who work in freight transportation. Over the past eight years, John McPhee has spent time in the company of people who work in freight transportation. He attends ship-handling school on a pond in the foothills of the French Alps, where, for 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. The most fascinating piece, McPhee visits the UPS hub at the Louisville, Kentucky, airport, where 5,000 workers sort a million packages every night. The building, with four million square feet of floor space and five miles of exterior walls, houses an almost entirely automated skein of conveyors where packages containing everything from Jockey shorts to live lobsters find their rightful destination in minutes--a sort of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory for the world of mail-order commerce. John McPhee and his son-in-law spend five days in a canoe, retracing the route Henry David Thoreau wrote about in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Though there is no freight involved, it is an engaging essay nonetheless, as the canoeists encounter a terrain much changed since the 19th century. This piece was a Disappointment. It is well written, but not up to his par, in my opinion. John McPhee ends his book y revisiting with Don Ainsworth thirty-six months after he had first left him. As He says, "If you have crossed the American continent in the world's most beautiful truck, you prefer not to leave it forever". Yes, suh, BK, this is the best of McPhee's books about people and this is the best there is. Highly recommended. prisrob 6-10-06


On CD, this book consists of eight discs, and at the start of the eighth disc the foul language suddenly took a quantum leap, so I stopped listening. Was the author accurately quoting his sources? No doubt. Are there other ways to tell the story without actually quoting the profanity? Of course. Most authors did so routinely until, oh, the past 20 or 30 years or so. I realize there are those who think writing is somehow better or more honest because the actual, repulsive language is used. I quite disagree. If you use foul language on a Duluth Transit Authority bus, the driver will immediately inform you that you must stop using this language or you will have to leave the bus. I think this is a good rule. It applies to my car. It applies to CDs I listen to on my car. The common use of coarse language in our society has not improved society in any way, it has just made it ... coarse.The first seven discs had some interesting material. They contained the amount of coarse language that I have somehow come to find acceptable, or at least tolerable.


Divided into six sections based on the mode of "carrier" McPhee is traveling with: HAZMAT truck drivers, Ocean-going cargo ships, Mississippi river barges, Canals of the northeast, UPS/FedEx and deliveries, Freight trains.Most scientifically fascinating was the cargo ship piece where McPhee attends training school for the captains and skippers of these massive vessels. On a lake in Switzerland, they train using life-size-yet-scaled models. One trainee is practicing a docking maneuver and parks an impressive 6 inches from the pier. The teacher reminds him that at full scale, he's something like 15 yards away. If the birds on the shore of the lake were at full scale, they would be 6 feet tall.The canal chapter is a total waste- McPhee and a friend follow Thoreau's canoe trip up the Hudson to some spot in Mass. Yawn.My favorite of course was the truck driving chapter. Not only is it charming and interesting, it spoke to a deep longing to be a truck driver myself. In his epilogue, McPhee revisits truckers saying that "the late-night hum at hundreds of truck stops across America is a quintessential piece of our sonic landscape." Indeed.Unfortunately this was a book-on-mp3, and McPhee is no voice actor. I was actually stunned to hear a director listed in the "credits," since I had sort of assumed McPhee just decided to settle in with a cup of tea one afternoon and read his whole book quietly to himself. Recommend to anyone interested in quirky engineering and/or is consumed by a burning desire to drive a big piece of machinery.

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.

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.

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