Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review: Paperboy by Henry Petroski

Petroski, Henry. Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Henry Petroski is an engineering professor who is well known for his books on engineering and technology. Paperboy is a memoir of his boyhood.

This memoir is a reflection of the times, the 1950s, as well as the author’s life. It shows a microcosm of a nation recovering from World War II and gearing up for the space race. The paperboys of New York weren’t interested in reading the newspapers they delivered, so they weren’t consciously aware of the social forces at work around them. (Even so, Petroski uses headlines from the Long Island Press to show what was going on at the time.) A boy with Petroski’s talents might have gone into any number of things, but with Sputnik overhead, government policy and watchful teachers nudged him into engineering. It was a good fit.

Petroski doesn’t leave technology completely out of the picture. As a paperboy, he had to master the art of folding and flipping papers. He assembled and maintained his own bicycle. He watched his orderly uncle, an accountant, put together exactly what he needed to build an attic closet with no waist.

Young Petroski had many traits that would have made engineering attractive to him: curiosity about how things work, mechanical aptitude, facility with mathematics, some perfectionism, more pragmatism, ability to think both concretely and abstractly, appreciate that things are made and making involves choosing. I have known and worked with many engineers in my career in that profession and nearly all of them share at least a few of these traits with Petroski.

A particular part of Petroski’s school experience stands out to me because it illustrates how real life is different from a story. His high school algebra teacher, Mr. Duncan, took an immediate dislike to him, apparently because it picked up on algebra so easily. Duncan began to call Petroski “Herman Peterson,” provoked him and sent him out into the hall. The budding engineer sat in the hall, following the lessons through the door, and remaining the leading student in the class. This hardship continued until Petroski advanced into upper-class math courses. A story probably would have had some satisfying resolution, but real life experience involved just moving on.

In one section of his memoir, Petroski discusses newspaper titles. It’s the kind of list-making thing many engineers are prone to do. The weekly paper in my hometown was the Bloomfield Vindicator. I have never heard a name for newspaper that was cooler than Vindicator. I’m reminded by it of those show that were popular in the 1980s about a nameless stranger who comes into town to bring justice to oppressors of the downtrodden like The Equalizer, Stingray, and The Pretender (which may have been from the 1990s). A syndicate combined the Vindicator with another publication and given it the unimaginative title of North Stoddard Countian.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in
Copernicus’ Secret by Jack Repcheck
Descarte’s Secret Notebook by Amir D. Aczel
The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson
Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson
The Science of Leonardo by Fritjof Capra

This review of Paperboy by Henry Petroski appears courtesy of Keenan’s Book Reviews, a book review blog that features nonfiction.

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