Deirdre Mask populates her daunting inquiries with a cast of stirring meddlers whose curiosity, outrage and ambition inspire them to confront problems ignored by indifferent bureaucracies.

What Street Names Say About Us

[ Read an excerpt from “The Address Book.” ]

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Credit…via Deirdre Mask

Mask, an American journalist who lives in London, pops in on historians, scientists, bureaucrats and various intriguing townspeople, guiding the reader across four continents and the Caribbean in her entertaining quest to trace the origins and implications of the names of the roads on which we reside. She careens through Nazi Germany, which changed the names of streets called “Jew,” and Tehran, where Winston Churchill Street was rechristened, to the British Embassy’s dismay, for the Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands. She notes that Tokyo has unnamed streets aplenty (a predicament for which my sister and I once invented the exclamation “JIC!” — Japan is confusing! — so as to not lose more time complaining on top of the hours wasted getting lost). This fact, Mask says, may have something to do with the structure of written Japanese, which emphasizes blocks of characters rather than (as in English) lines of letters. About Haiti, she wonders, “Could street addresses stop an epidemic?” — a question that’s becoming more interesting by the hour.

Tracking a Haitian cholera outbreak, she describes how a lack of street addresses can be a matter of life or death. She points out that “about 70 percent of the world is insufficiently mapped, including many cities with more than a million people.” Adding that these are usually the planet’s poorest places, she quotes a Brazilian scientist who studied snake venom and observed, “Where there are snakes, there are no statistics; and where there are statistics, there are no snakes.”

“Maps are how we organize our data,” the Canadian medical geographer Tom Koch, a leading expert on “disease mapping,” told Mask. Without charts inscribed with addresses, epidemiologists are hindered in making maps to contain epidemics. In February, Koch published an op-ed in The Toronto Globe and Mail, warning that since the advent of SARS in 2003, animal-to-human viruses are “fast evolving and we, alas, are not.”

Still, in one of her many hopeful encounters with problem solvers, Mask details how Ivan, a logistician who worked for Doctors Without Borders during the Sierra Leone Ebola outbreak, got involved with an international nonprofit called Missing Maps, which enlists volunteers around the world to chart the planet’s many unmapped areas from satellite images. “Missing Maps,” Mask declares, “had decided not to wait until the next crisis — they were going to map ahead of it.”

Structurally, narrative nonfiction tends to work either like a freight train (progressing in a straight line from Point A to Point B) or like a horseback rider (jumping fences to gallop across fields of unwieldy facts); count Mask among the horsy set. “The Address Book” is her first book, and she is already a master at shoehorning in fascinating yet barely germane detours just for kicks.


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