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

Erich

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.

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

Seth

I both really liked and was pretty disappointed by this book. On the up side, it has some fascinating essays by John McPhee on transportation, the environment and the economy. On the down side, it turns out that I've read every single one of these essays in the New Yorker, and the addition of his retracing of the Thoreau brothers' excursion up the New England waterways (which I found kind of mind-numbing the first time I read it: perfectly capturing the experience of a slow afternoon on an overheated river surrounded by bugs -- and not in the good way), this time it feels sort of arbitrary and doesn't fit well with the rest of the book. True, it's about transportation, the environment and the economy. But it's like a weird, extended dance-remix of a flashback to the nineteenth century in the middle of a Dirty Jobs episode.

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.

Bob Cipriani

This overview is from the Book jacket. My admiration for John McPhee's books are expressed in my review of 'The Control of Nature'.Jacket overview: "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 theFrench 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."This is one of my very favorites of his 29 books.

Erica

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.

Joe

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.

Jon

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.

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.

Meera

(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."

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.

Stephen

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

Stef

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.

John

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.

Sally

i like john mcphee's writing in general, even though it can be heavy on facts - you know, facts, hoo boy! the first piece is about cross country trucking, interesting in itself much to my surprise, but also because some places mentioned are the same as what carol and i saw in october. i do love it if it's about ME, even peripherally. the second piece is about the ship handling school near grenoble to which both of my brothers went 20+ years ago, so almost about ME. kind of. the third piece about barges on the illinois river is a bit of a yawner. haven't seen the ME in it yet.bet i'm not going to be offered any work as a book reviewer.seriously, this is an interesting book about common carriers which are the underpinning of our economy (i made that part up, but possibly it's a fact) about which i/many/practically everybody? know nothing.the chapter about UPS called Out in the Sort is worth the price of admission. first of all, it tells a whole lot about shipping lobsters, poor little commodities. and second, it tells a LOT about UPS which is fascinating, as it turns out. read this book. read it. or just read that one chapter.

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