From contact tracing to census taking, we’ve recently become more aware of the need to locate one another. Deirdre Mask’s “The Address Book” investigates this locating phenomenon and explores all things addresses. By exploring the past, the present, and by speculating about the future, Mask is able to ask and artfully answer the question: What does an address reveal?
Throughout her historical analysis, Mask infuses her personality and lived experience as an African American lawyer, writer, and scholar. For example, she describes the middle school field trips she took to confederate battlegrounds and how she later contemplated buying a house on “Black Boy Lane” in North London. Mask’s stories help us to understand not just how intuitive navigation is, but also how humans create unnatural and unjust addressing systems. “The Address Book” highlights how deliberate the names and numbers we mindlessly plug into our Google Maps are on cultural, social, and political levels.
As Mask draws her readers’ attention to various street addresses around the world, she points out the connections between seemingly unrelated cities and time periods. She connects mid-nineteenth-century London to contemporary Haiti. John Snow, the doctor who became known as the father of epidemiology, relied on both his medical education and a sewer map to find the source of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London. When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, a model similar to Snow’s sewer map was used to locate the United Nations site that was poisoning residents in a nearby city.
Mask connects early London to the present-day again by looking at contemporary movements that organize to either rename or protect old street names. As language has evolved, some consider the old names vulgar and inappropriate, while others fight to maintain the history of offensive, yet charmingly historical street names, such as “Crotch Crescent.”
As Mask traverses the interesting and lighthearted, she also confronts the
more serious implications of language and street naming. “The Address Book” covers everything from the controversies around streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. to antisemitic street naming in Berlin before and after WWII.
Following the odd, sometimes dark, and yet undeniably fascinating histories of addressing, the book reflects on not only the injustices of addressing but also on how people work to redress them. From stories of Parisians attempting to navigate Tokyo, to how Northern Irish activist Bobby Sands came to have a street named after him in Iran, Mask weaves a fun, fast, and authentic read.
If history and “The Address Book” teach us anything, it’s that addressing is more connected to our daily lives and our society’s values than we think. The power and beauty of addresses is that they blend seamlessly into the fabric of our everyday lives without us giving them a second thought. “The Address Book” is gripping and encourages us to begin observing our world more closely.
Reviewer Sophie Stein is an intern at the Center for American Literary Studies.
Centre County Reads and the Center for American Literary Studies selected “The Address Book” as this year's community read. Mask will visit Centre County readers virtually to discuss her book on March 23rd at 7:00pm. Details for the event can be found on the Centre County Reads website.