Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: The Road Taken

The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure
Henry Petroski

I can't help but admire a book that not only takes its title from a certain poem, but every single chapter title as well--and gets them in order. Also, I'll read more or less anything by a man who had the chops to write a wonderful engineering history of the pencil. This one is a little less successful than it might have been. The writing is uncharacteristically stiff--not dry, nor unreadable, but somewhat more formal than it needs to be. Perhaps that's because many of the chapters were originally essays in a trade magazine; presumably that's the reason why there's less of a narrative thread here than I'd have preferred. Finally, the relentless focus on roads and road bridges is a bit of a lost opportunity for a broader and more thematic take.

Still: a good book, enlightening and judicious. It's descriptive, but it's also prescriptive: the most eloquent passages are the arguments in favor of infrastructure, of engineering, and of not taking either for granted. I particularly liked the chapters on those portions of highway infrastructure that webarely even register, such as street markings and traffic lights and curbs and guardrails. Humble they may be, but they're all important ... and they're all engineered.

Two good related books: Earl Swift's The Big Roads (about the Interstate Highway system), which Petroski references freely here, and Tom Vanderbilt's Traffic (accurately subtitled "Why We Drive the Way We Do"), which he doesn't.

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