The Address Book – a book review

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deidra Mask (published by Macmillan) is a story-filled and thought provoking book in the vein of Bill Bryson, Mary Roach, and Henry Petroski. Mask puts the very familiar road signs, house numbers, street names, city planning, etc., not just under the magnifying glass, but under the microscope. I was constantly surprised at ‘why things are the way they are and how they got that way’. (I was also surprise just how vulgar some street names are, once you hear their backstory and origins.) Wow.

There are many highlights in the book. But one of the most impressive is how Mask’s ability to connect dots and reveal how relevant history and decisions made generations ago affect our neighborhoods and political decisions today.

The cover of The Address Book was designed by Jonathan Bush.

The Address Book addresses far flung topics, political issues, race relations, and biology, illustrating how our sense of place ties into our brain’s memories of places and the development of the hippocampus or relating tales of how streets got their names, it all seems relevant to us today.

There’s a balance to be struck in addressing, which seems kind of weird to say. But if one has an address then they can vote, participate in local events, have medicines delivered. It is an identity. It is empowering. And being given an address is invaluable to many people struggling in slums and the poorest areas of the planet.

At the same time, once you have an address, some feel dehumanized and that they’re “just a number”. Plus, now the government can track you. They can show up on your doorstep if they don’t like what you’re saying or doing. It’s also a good way for them to reinforce their rule. Some of the stories of dictators changing street names every time power changes hands to “literally put words in your mouth”, so you have to say Hitler Avenue or something like that. Lots of mind games at the street level have been played over the centuries.

Throughout the book there are fascinating tid-bits and stories showing the impact of addressing systems, such as how Mozart got his mail, the millions of dollars some in New York City will pay to have a specific address, the story behind the founding of Philadelphia, and how Washington D.C. got it’s street names. So many interesting talk about stories in this book.

Deidra Mask

Mask does a great job relating her story as she explores and digs deeper. The Address Book isn’t some stale history book. There are people doing things now and these things matter as they can bake in systemic problems or promote growth and unity.

I was very surprised and pleased to learn just how many ‘new ways to address locations’ are under development. Lots of new tech and ways of thinking about our societies and Mask touches on some of the movements briefly, like what3words, and helps highlight the pros and cons.

Which brings me to the highest praise I can give a book. While The Address Book did not feel designed to ‘plant a flag’ or ‘rally the troops’ (it’s a much more fair and balanced book than that), it was a tipping point for me to get involved.

During the first third of the book you’ll read about the Missing Maps group. Think Wikipedia, but for giving addresses to those who need them most and providing accurate maps to health care workers and humanitarian organizations. It’s amazing what a bunch of random folks sitting around with laptops can do. So I signed up! I haven’t attended a mapping party (they’re all over Europe/Britain), but I’ve done a few stints of tracing in Open Street Maps. Pretty cool.

I found The Address Book to be a fast read and while there were a few areas I would’ve enjoyed diving deeper on, the book doesn’t blow anything out of proportion. Which I very much appreciate. It’s full of cultural geographers, historians, epidemiologists, and first hand interviews plus the author’s own experience and thoughts.

This book was sent to me as an advanced galley (with no expectation of review). But I really enjoyed it and I give The Address Book 5 out 5 stars and have been recommending this book to just about everyone. It’s a well done and informative read about something so many of us are privileged enough to take for granted.

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