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.
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!
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).