An engineer (Civil Engineering and History/Duke) who has written about pencils, bridges, and other useful things casts a fond—and analytical—look back at his own 1950s youth and once again discovers mystery and magnificence in the mundane.
Petroski (The Book on the Bookshelf, 1999, etc.) begins near his 12th birthday, when he received what he wanted most: a Schwinn. It arrived unassembled, and Petroski’s father (manually challenged) wisely permitted his more skillful son to put it together. The Schwinn would soon carry young Petroski around Queens on a paper route that he kept for the better part of two-and-a-half years—approximately the timeframe for this marvelous memoir. With his fascination for the pragmatic and historical, Petroski lets few things escape his analysis. He relates some of the history of Queens, the system of numbering houses there, the method for adjusting bicycle spokes, the rules of penny-pitching, the history of the Long Island Press (the paper he delivered), the economics of newspaper-delivery, the history of the bicycle, the differences between American Flyer and Lionel trains, the effects of consuming two aspirin with warm Pepsi, the Dodgers’ move from Brooklyn—and so much more. At one point he confesses, “The closer I looked at things, the more complicated they became.” Lucky for us. Petroski pauses to ponder complications and then explain them in a prose so transparent that at times we are barely aware we are reading. Among the treasures: a terrific description of how he folded a newspaper to keep it from flying apart as it soared from his hand to the subscriber’s porch; and a horrifying account of a brutal algebra teacher’s determination (and failure) to break Petroski’s spirit.
The author concludes that “Being an engineer is in fact a lot like being a paperboy,” and by the end, we’re convinced as well that no metaphor for life is more apt than a paper route. (30 b&w photos throughout)