The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

Have you ever wondered about the origin of your address? How did your street, road, lane or crescent receive its name and designation?

Though I have lived at several different addresses over the years, I hadn’t given it much thought – until now.

Deirdre Mask is responsible for this interest and wonder about addresses and how they have become a necessary part of life all over the world. In The Address Book Mask examines in great and readable detail the question of why addresses matter. The subtitle of the book gives an indication of how Mask tackles the question. Street addresses can reveal a lot about Identity, Race, Wealth and Power.

In the Introduction Mask reveals some interesting facts about why street addresses do matter. For example, forty percent of all local laws passed, in some years, by the New York City Council, have been street name changes. Given that the Council monitors the largest school system and police force in the United States as well as deciding land use for one of the most densely populated places on earth, changing street names seems to be an inordinate use of the Council’s meeting time.

This though was not the reason Mask formed the idea about writing this book. When she was living in the west of Ireland, she decided to send her father, who lived in North Carolina, a birthday card. After posting it near her home at the time, the card appeared in her parent’s mailbox four days later. Since the stamp did not cost much, how, mused Mask, did Ireland and the United States share the proceeds of the small amount when the cost of processing and transportation of the birthday card was a lot more.

Her research into the intricacies of postal services and street addresses led Mask to the discovery that there are billions of people in the world who don’t have reliable addresses. This lack of reliable addresses does not discriminate between developed and undeveloped nations. While we can understand that nations such as India and Indonesia may have this problem because of their large populations, it is difficult to comprehend that the same holds true for the United States and I daresay for Australia even though it is not mentioned in the book.

An address means that a person exists because they can be linked to a physical place. As Mask says, one of the first questions someone is asked on a form or in verbal conversation is, “where do you live”, “what is your address”.

An address then gives a person a place in a community and nation. That is one reason why addresses matter and has mattered for many centuries. Mask goes back in history to ancient Rome as well as early London and Vienna to show that naming streets and numbering houses is important especially if you are a ruler who needs taxes to remain solvent and find recruits for an army.

While Mask discusses physical street addresses, she also looks to the future and begins to grapple, as others are also doing, with the concept that an address can be more technologically virtual and not so tangible. Will the email address or barcode take precedence over the physical address that can be found by consulting a map?

The Address Book is a fascinating read. It raises issues that we often take for granted. Since reading the book, I have become more conscious about street names and how they may affect people especially, as Mask reveals, if the name of the street offends people.

Instead of taking street names and addresses for granted, Mask challenges us to think carefully about how identity, race, wealth and power can change a way of locating people into a weapon that demeans and humiliates people who have no power and are often voiceless.

Deirdre Mask graduated from Harvard College summa cum laude and attended the University of Oxford before returning to Harvard for law school where she was editor of the Harvard Law Review. She completed a master’s in writing at the National University of Ireland. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic and the Guardian. She has taught at Harvard and the London School of Economics.

 The Address Book

by Deirdre Mask

(2021)

Profile Books

ISBN – 978 1 78125 901 6

$22.99; 326pp

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