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Blog > Book Review: The Address Book

I don’t know about you, but as a member of Postcrossing, I take having an address for granted. I hadn’t thought about life any other way, nor put a lot of thought into my various addresses over the years. In the end, what got me wondering about it was helping out at Postcrossing, checking people’s addresses to make sure they were correct and learning about how different countries format their addresses.

Cover of The Address Book

Just at the right moment to answer some of these questions, I came across Deirdre Mask’s The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power. Do any of her opening questions — the ones that led her into the subject to begin with — sound as familiar to you as they do to me?

I set out to write a letter. I was living in the west of Ireland, and I had sent a birthday card to my father in North Carolina. I pressed a stamp on the envelope, and just four days later the card appeared in my parents’ mailbox. I thought, not particularly originally, that this should have been much more expensive than it was. And how did Ireland and the United States share the proceeds? Is there some accountant in a windowless back room of the post office, dividing each penny between the two countries?

In case you’re wondering, Mask does include the answers to those questions!

It was pretty surprising to me how much there was to say about addresses, and how little I’d thought about it. Mask picks apart the advantages and disadvantages of having an address, and discusses how some people in areas without addresses actually oppose any change. For people in politically unstable areas, having an address can be a bad thing, because it makes you easier to find — and no one is likely to be sending you postcards!

On the other hand, it makes all kinds of things more difficult: most documents for proving your identity rely upon you having an address and a traceable history. You can end up barred from working, having a bank account and signing up for government services, and once you’ve got into that situation, it’s difficult to get out.

It’s also surprising to me how recent some of these conventions are. Zip codes in the US were only introduced in 1963, and reading in Mask’s book about their introduction prompted me to look up the system of postal codes in the UK, introduced between 1959 and 1974. They’re so ubiquitous now that I didn’t even realise my parents might not have had postal codes when growing up!

Mr Zip advert
This is an image from a March, 1965 issue of Time magazine in which Mr Zip appeared, advertising the introduction of zip codes (Time, March 19, 1965, 92, via the Smithsonian).

One issue that Mask discusses that was particularly relevant for me (since I’m studying for my MSc in Infectious Diseases) was the importance of clear maps and precise locations for epidemiology. Ever since John Snow (not that one, GoT fans!) made a map of London to track cholera infections, epidemiologists have used maps and addresses to try to identify the causes of infection and the sites of transmission. Sometimes they need to use addresses to contact people and do follow-up work… but often the people most at risk of diseases like tuberculosis are people who have no fixed address, or live in improvised homes and shantytowns. How do we find those people and help them access the long-term treatment they need, without addresses?

The book is packed with all kinds of dilemmas like that — many of which I really hadn’t thought about before picking it up. It was pretty eye-opening, and I won’t be taking my address for granted again! What do you think; will you be giving this book a try? Has anyone already read it? I’d love to hear what you thought of it, if so!

The next review should be about Wish You Were Here (by Rita Mae Brown and her cat), but after that, I’m not sure! The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society features high on the list, since several Postcrossing members have asked my thoughts on it. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s ready on my shelf! But is there something you’d like me to review? You can make book suggestions to me in the forum thread I set up (you’ll need to be logged in to access it).

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44 comments so far

Lies76, Belgium
what an incredible interesting article. thank you Nicky!
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RowanP, Netherlands
Nice!!!
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Mosshumla, Sweden
That seems to be a really interesting book. Thanks for your review!
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sealed4ever, United States of America
Really fascinating
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SissyLee, United States of America
Thanks for this! I had never once thought about zip codes and here I find I was born just a bit before they were invented!
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Indreni, United States of America
So important. I read a couple months ago a novel called This Is How I'd Love You by Hazel Woods. Although it's not completely epistolary, it is based upon a pen pal exchange between a teenage girl and an American soldier in World War 1, and contains several letters. It was so good!
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Silvanus_Tauris, Ukraine
Very interesting article! Postal codes in my country were introduced in February 1925. This means that we are one of the first!
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CindyMc, United States of America
This is a really interesting subject! Thank you for the review, and the information. I was born in 1952, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. Before there were ZIP codes, our address included the designation "Lansing, 15, Michigan." Once we had ZIP code, the "15" was no longer used.
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cjf3848, United States of America
Hanks for the review. You’ve got me interested!
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Pemasagirls, France
Makes me want to look for this book and read it. Your article was very interested and you're right, it makes us think of little details considered as granted.
Thanks !
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Willemstamps, Netherlands
Thank you!
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ejeddy, United States of America
Very interesting article. I have also wondered how share the proceeds or if there was some international agreement, which seems impossible since we agree on almost nothing with some countries. I sure want to read this book. Thanks.
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wildernesscat, Israel
You got my curiosity. I just bought a used copy on Amazon.
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Flippie, Canada
Hi Shanaqu, I remember when the postal code (postcode) came out In the Netherlands. Now living in Canada it's normal to don't forget the postal or zip other wise your never get deliver...
I'm thinking to buy The Address Book from Deidre Mask.
Thank you for your article.
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tanzianne, United Kingdom
Postcodes can be very helpful to the sorting office if the address and postcode matchup. I do not know how my daughter did it but she put my address and her postcode when she placed an order online. I had to ring the sorting office up and tell them. They were very understanding and I got my item. This is why the senders address is put on the back of a parcel. The sorting office sends the parcel back to the sender. Thank you sorting office and all the sorting offices everywhere you do a good job making sure that we get our postcards and what we put in the post.You keep the World moving.
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Axolotl_, Germany
That's a great review and it definitely got me interested in the book. It's suprising how much further thought is attached to something seemingly simple like an address..
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Jacque53, United States of America
Very interesting review! It certainly got me interested in the book! I am old enough to remember mailing addresses before zip codes and then the big push to get everyone to use a zip code. ‘Mr. Zip’ the cartoon character shown in the article was used to help promote using zip codes in the 1960’s.
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RaineyDay, United States of America
I have two daughters who were adopted from China. We were fortunate to have a chance to visit their foster mother who lived in a rural part of Inner Mongolia. I asked her address so we could keep in touch. Where she lived, she did not have an address. I had never run into a situation where there is no mail, no address. I am still curious about it.
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lutermanj, United States of America
Thank you for an interesting review! I’ve just borrowed the e-book from my local public library and I’ll read it on my Kindle. Much appreciated!
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AvaJoy, United States of America
So very interesting!!

I have ordered the book from our local library

THANK YOU
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mailycaylie, United States of America
This is one of my all-time favorite books!
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Vikusi, Belarus
Tell me, is there this book in Russian?
If not, where can I download or buy in the original language?
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Waldo, United Kingdom
Before postcodes in the U.K. an uncle received mail addressed simply to 'The man on the beach with a dog, Holywell.' He did walk his dog on the beach every day. It was meant for him. That it was a small village helped the postman, who knew the more gregarious folk there, as was my uncle, very well. A postcode would have swept aside problems and enjoyments of this personal aspect.
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3AngryCats, Canada
In my collecting and trading of philatelic/stamp items, I quite often come across an old letter addressed as (example), Ms Postcrossing, City - and it got to the person in Toronto Ontario. Impossible today with a population of 2.7 million!
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isabetta, Italy
You had me at “Address” 😁 I got my copy today, thank you!
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JudithfromHamburg, Germany
That was an interesting read - thank you! Looking forward to read your review of the „Guernsey literary…“ book - it has a huge fan base (me included 😊)
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wardmob, New Zealand
I went straight to Libby and got the book from the library. Thanks!!!
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antoinettelucas, United States of America
Thanks for this review. Very interesting. I'm ordering a copy today.
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Demmi, Romania
Interesting review. Kudos @shanaqui (Y)
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NIDUSKA, Finland
Thank you
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Christian222, Germany
Das klingt nach einem sehr guten Buch. Danke für den Buchtipp. Als kleine Gegenleistung gebe ich hiermit ebenfalls einen: https://www.kulturkaufhaus.de/de/detail/ISBN-9783754169254/Schwochert-Christian/Antwort-auf-Richard-David-Prechts--Von-der-Pflicht--und-weitere-Lesermails
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mar872, Canada
Thanks for the review. I have put a hold on it at my library. :)
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wendyquilter, Canada
I am getting it from my library. Recently saw a post on facebook about a letter in Iceland addressed using a map and descriptive detail. Here is the link:
https://mymodernmet.com/iceland-envelope-hand-drawn-map/?fbclid=IwAR0GYc3G1LXeFcj3jR4jNIk83qI5_c1M3syPc99-P01cZnBu_KVLC-Uzu1M
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peesnpikuhlzz, United States of America
Interesting article, thank you! I, too, realized very recently myself just how privileged I am to have my own address. My particular reason being that I'm currently in the process of sending a card to a friend I have in Cameroon (I volunteered there one summer years ago). So after I asked him where to send it I was confused by the address he provided, because it seemed to be missing vital info. He later explained that people there don't really have addresses like ours, that it's mostly businesses. Anyway, thanks again for the share! :)
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Kaazay, United Kingdom
Very interesting thank you and it has given a great gift idea!
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beesknees, United States of America
Sometimes its the most mundane things that are the most interesting.
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indianwoman, India
Thank you for this recommendation. I immediately ordered the book and hope to enjoy reading about addresses.
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POSTALSAURUS, India
Interesting review, thank you let as all to know about The Address book.
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amullari, Estonia
Wow, seems interesting book
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alison41, South Africa
What an interesting article. I remember many years ago learning about the lack of street addresses in Japan - at that period in my life I was an active pen-paller.
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JamesC, United States of America
I've just finished this book. It is interesting but it digresses a lot from the main subject. It would have been better as a long magazine article.
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TheBeaverFamily, United States of America
Just finished Chapter 1. Very interesting. Thanks for the recommendation!
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tetsu70, Japan
A great article. I will be ordering the book as I find the questions very interesting. Some of the stamps in my holdings have Mr. Zip drawings on the end of the stamp. I use them when I write to other stamp collectors. I remember when zip was first introduced in the US. I was living in Connecticut at the time. Here in Japan I am amazed that the mails get delivered as we don`t have named streets or house numbers, in most instances. Thanks for the article.
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Lirleni, United States of America
Very interesting book! Borrowed it from library.
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