Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review: Door to Door

Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation
Edward Humes
2016, Books, Engineering, Sociology

The subtitle has some truth in it. Door to Door is, in places, magnificent. It's often maddening, too. In the best cases this is in agreement with Edward Humes's arguments. Other times, unfortunately, it's Humes himself who's maddening. Door to Door isn't really one book, in fact. It's two books, which happen to reside awkwardly between the same pair of covers.

Book A is what I recently called an empiricist book about how transportation happens. That is, it's about the magic of moving stuff (and people, but mainly stuff) around. This book is genuinely fascinating and enlightening. It's what's described in the blurb. I would happily have read this book.

Book B is a book which should be entitled Why Cars Are Eeeevil (and How the Self-Driving Car Will Save Us All). It's a long, impassioned, well-written, impressively statistic-driven essay--I think I wouldn't be going too far in using the term "diatribe", with "rant" lurking in the wings--about Why Cars Are Evil.

I am not an unreceptive audience to this message. I read most of this book while riding commuter rail trains, which I take (in large part) because I think that cars really are evil. There's nothing wrong with this idea. I would happily have read Why Cars Are Eeeevil as well--and had many fewer reservations afterwards.

But Why Cars Are Eeeevil isn't a stand-alone; nor does it peacefully coexist with the original book, the one about logistics. You'll forgive me for observing that, in fact, it runs right over it, leaving its tire-riven corpse bleeding in the gutter. Humes gets so wound up in Why Cars Are Eeeevil that he neglects to finish the other book. His research never takes him outside of southern California. He dismisses the national freight railroad system in a sentence--a laudatory sentence, but still! One sentence! Pipelines and barges aren't mentioned at all.

Door to Door could be sliced up into a number of good Slate magazine articles. It could be split into two books, each of which would have something going for it. As one split-personality book, I'd have to rate it less "magnificent", more "maddening", and--I'm sorry to say it--something of a disappointment as well.

One of the best books ever written on the logistics of transportation is (naturally) by John McPhee: Uncommon Carriers. Rose George's 90% of Everything is also pretty good.


  1. Freight only gets one sentence? Pity. Do the McPhee or the George devote more attention to rail?

    1. 90% of Everything is specifically about container ships and shipping--how stuff moves around the world. Uncommon Carriers has a section on coal trains, one on long-distance trucking, and another on barge traffic. There's a review here.