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Uncommon Carriers

3.92  ·  Rating Details ·  1,462 Ratings  ·  185 Reviews
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
ebook, 256 pages
Published May 16th 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Feb 07, 2015 Tony rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-nature
For 35 years I did what I did (fairly enjoying the first 34). John McPhee, in this book, lets me imagine a few other trades: Tony in the cab of an 18-wheeler, carrying hazmat; Tony pushing a thousand feet of (15) barges up the "tight-assed" Illinois River; Tony sorting packages in a UPS center, letting UPS pay for my college; Tony in a coal train, wearing a T-shirt that says, "UNION FISH STRIKE MORE". On my days off, I'd paddle a canoe one week with my brother on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers ...more
May 01, 2016 Darwin8u rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
“On the horizon there were no trees. Deer and antelope were everywhere at play, much too young to care what had happened to the range..."
-- John McPhee, Uncommon Carriers


McPhee is one of my favorites. I think his strongest form is the long-essay and I love his collections that are thematic. Uncommon carriers delivered exactly what I wanted with a bunch of surprises. Like always, McPhee is able to mix together great characters, fantastic observations, and a real sense of space and place and tell
Sep 16, 2010 Jacob rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Amazon has been urging me to read John McPhee ever since I told them (it?) I own Annals of the Former World. Amazon tends to do that; add a book to your personal library/collection, and it immediately recommends every other book the author has ever written, ever. In this case it was justified, since Annals looks a bit imposing and I was considering checking out McPhee's other books anyway, but don't tell them that.

As it turns out, there are some books I shouldn’t bring along when visiting famil
Jun 05, 2010 John rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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 quit ...more
Mar 03, 2010 Andrea rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 a
Apr 12, 2009 Eric_W rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. I actually read the sections when they appeared in The New Yorker. I assume few changes were made. McPhee must have the best job in the world getting to ride with an over-the-road trucker across the United States; traveling down the Illinois River on a towboat and linked barges (something I've always really wanted to do down the Mississippi with a friend of mine]; and following freight trains from the cab. Talk about your Walter Mitty! His articles and books are filled with ju ...more
Jul 14, 2009 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Howard Olsen
Aug 31, 2007 Howard Olsen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ordinanr ...more
Dec 16, 2007 Espen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Shelves: own, transportation
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 w
Aug 05, 2014 Amanda rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I was a child I used to stare at my father's collection of John McPhee books. Over time the titles acquired great mystery and weight "The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed" "Heirs of General Practice" "A Roomful of Hovings"
As an adult I've only read Founding Fish, which was great, and now Uncommon Carriers.
I find McPhee's style a bit abrasive at times, but he engages with his subjects in such interesting and thoughtful ways, it is hard to resist the next chapter. In this book I particularly liked The S
Tom Elliott
Now don't get me wrong, I really like McPhee and picked this book up from a shop because I was in a rush and knew he would hook me with some poetical rhapsodizing about alluvial planes or the cold-water antics of Icelandic tough guys. And he did! Particularly with "A Fleet of One," where he stays with a long-haul truck driver over the course of a week and gives us a glimpse into the [not-so-seedy] underside of American consumerism, and "Tight-Assed River," though any piece that name drops Peoria ...more
Adam Uraynar
Aug 13, 2016 Adam Uraynar rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: perspective
gator - strip of tire
r.o. rinse - reverse-osmosis (truck) wash
teetotaller - doesn’t drink
paucity - only in small or insufficient quantities; scarcity ~ “paucity of information"
NCIC - National Crime Information Center ~ system within the FBI
cavitate - formation of empty space within a solid ~ Every ship has a window of cavitation.
Williamson turn - good way to stop ~ turn the wheel hard until the ship is 60 degrees off the course it was on. Then shift the wheel to the other extreme. The ship circl
St Fu
May 17, 2016 St Fu rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
You have to admire this book. I learned many things reading it: How Thoreau is pronounced, that trucker don't swear more (or less) than you or I (unless you are the reviewer above who was offended by the swearing), that U.P.S. has its own college and repairs Toshiba laptops, that both John McPhee and his wife had to take driving courses because of having gotten too many tickets.

But the most surprising thing I learned is that even I was insufficiently geeky to fully appreciate the level of detail
Apr 26, 2016 Egm rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Listened to this book on tape. Think it would have lent itself better to a printed copy as there were definitely passages I would have liked to go back to. Found the book very interesting - learned a lot about different forms of transportation (different types of liquid truck carriers, shipping live lobsters, ships, coal/freight trains). Found myself thinking frequently about my son as I read (listened). Plan to recommend it to him, although not sure if he will find it too advanced. (He's < 1 ...more
Cameron Wiggins
Uncommon Carriers is a very interesting piece of non-fiction work by John McPhee. McPhee is a required taste not unlike Scotch, but if you are a fan of non-fiction story-telling, McPhee is very interesting. If a reader meets those preliminary reading requirements, which I do, then he should most likely enjoy the book. However, even for myself, I was constantly pushing it aside and taking a break for lighter reading, but nevertheless, I did enjoy the book.
Uncommon Carriers covers various types of
McPhee is the master of turning the commonplace things we rarely, if ever, think about into great stories. Oranges, rocks, canoes, New Jersey, dams on rivers...whatever it is, McPhee will bring it to life.

In this collection, he explores our stuff and how it gets to us. Not just Walmartish items, but coal to power our air conditioning, live lobsters for our fancy meal, grain for our bread, and chemicals for the many items we never think twice about. To this end, he rides in big rigs, coal trains,
Pris robichaud
Jan 04, 2009 Pris robichaud rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

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 th
Mar 02, 2011 Jen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I borrowed this book from my dad because one of my professors had handed out John McPhee's essay "Out in the Sort," which details the operations of the UPS sorting facility in Louisville and the people who work there (and is included in this compilation), and I had really enjoyed it.

If there was a way to divide this review, I'd give the overall content three stars but the depth of reporting and in-depth background knowledge on each subject four. Some essays just left me confused (in the one in w
Mar 04, 2010 Erica rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 21, 2012 Meera rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(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.
Feb 15, 2008 Sally rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: you!
Recommended to Sally by: jane
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 ...more
April Brown
Sep 22, 2013 April Brown rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 pla ...more
Nov 09, 2013 Hannah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wouldn't characterize this as a badly written book overall, but I will say that I lost interest at many points in the narrative. The book follows his journeys with various freight carriers, such as a chemical tanker, a tow boat on the Illinois River, coal trains in and around Wyoming, truckloads and then plane-loads of lobsters from Canada, and least interestingly (to me) a canoe in New England, tracing a route taken by Thoreau.

I found the parts about trucking to be very enlightening (I will
Bob Cipriani
Feb 24, 2009 Bob Cipriani rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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. M
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 usefu ...more
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 goodrea
Nov 14, 2007 Joe rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
much of this collection of several essays is what i could call excruciatingly educational, that is, the topics are ones you could hardly imagine ever studying (the details of how to guide a barge of the ohio river?), especially in this much detail, and yet, with mcphee as your guide, it becomes downright interesting.

some sections tho glow with their own light. the essay centered on the UPS package distribution hub (called "out in the sort") should have wide appeal due if nothing else to the exte
Mar 02, 2008 Stef rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, audiobook
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?" quest
Jul 15, 2014 Jon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Guy Choate
A few years ago, a professor assigned a chapter of this to read, and it was great. I finally got around to reading the whole book and realize the chapter I read by far outperformed the rest of the book. That first chapter McPhee does what I loved so much when I read The Pine Barrens--he latched onto his character by using the character's language almost exclusively to explain things, which made me feel like I'd known the character for years. In the other chapters, however, I never got to latch o ...more
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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