Noted engineer and writer Petroski (Civil Engineering/Duke Univ.; To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure, 2012, etc.) gives readers a characteristically eye-opening look at America’s infrastructure.
The good news, writes the author, is that “the horror stories of corruption, graft, waste, fraud, and abuse” that accompany accounts of construction and maintenance in, say, Italy or China are not the norm in America; where they turn up, they are remarkable for being outliers. The bad news is—well, just about everything else, apart from the ingenuity of the American engineers and builders who put up the interstate highway system, bridges, dams, and other hallmarks of the nation’s engineering history, most now crumbling to bits. Little escapes Petroski’s attention. If you want to know the exact recipe for building an asphalt highway, or are interested in why it might be preferred to concrete in some situations but not others, or have a fascination for asphalt-related statistics (“By the early twenty-first century, asphalt was in place on about 94 percent of the more than two million miles of paved roads in the United States”), then this is exactly the book for you. Asphalt, of course, falls just under the A’s in the long list of things that exercise the author’s exacting attention, bespeaking an attention to detail, praiseworthy enough in an engineer, that might become tedious in the hands of a less-skilled writer. Of immediate interest, given the deterioration of our roads and bridges, is Petroski’s look at early arguments over highway funding, which have considerable bearing on contemporary arguments over privatization and passing the buck to the states. “We need to take a holistic view of infrastructure,” he writes, both generally and in order to understand why some things last and some things fall apart, an understanding that hangs on dozens of disparate factors.
Anyone with an interest in the way things work will want this book—and will doubtless emerge as a fan of the ever curious author.