Anyone wondering what sort of experience prepares one for a future as an engineer may be surprised to learn that it includes delivering newspapers. But as Henry Petroski recounts his youth in 1950s Queens, New York–a borough of handball games and inexplicably numbered streets–he winningly shows how his after-school job amounted to a prep course in practical engineering.
Petroksi’s paper was The Long Island Press, whose headlines ran to COP SAVES OLD WOMAN FROM THUG and DiMAG SAYS BUMS CAN’T WIN SERIES. Folding it into a tube suitable for throwing was an exercise in post-Euclidean geometry. Maintaining a Schwinn revealed volumes about mechanics. Reading Paperboy, we also learn about the hazing rituals of its namesakes, the aesthetics of kitchen appliances, and the delicate art of penny-pitching. With gratifying reflections on these and other lessons of a bygone era–lessons about diligence, labor, and community-mindedness–Paperboy is a piece of Americana to cherish and reread.
In this subtle, engaging memoir, Petroski reminisces about his idyllic 1950s Catholic boyhood in Cambria Heights, Queens, as a member of a guild of paperboys. The headlines of the Long Island Press, which the author used to deliver on his cherished Schwinn, capture the time: "McCarthy Wants to Question Accusers"; "DiMag Says Bums Can't Win Series"; "U.S. Has No Rocket Like Sputnik's." Petroski recalls the '50s with such memories as the Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show; bike rides to the Carvel stand for dipped soft ice cream cones or shakes; and, in the basement of his suburban home, a wet bar and American Flyer electric train set placed on crates. Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, has a knack for fleshing big stories out of simple premises (he traced the cultural history of the fork, the paperclip and the Post-it in The Evolution of Useful Things; in To Engineer Is Human, he chronicled human progress through engineering failures). By recollecting his old paper route, Petroski gives readers a warm, nostalgic riding tour of his youth and foreshadows the engineer-to-be in the boy who by nature relished the "simple mechanical pleasures," from the mechanics of a nun's habit to delivering a paper: "as every paperboy knows, the hardest thing in the world is to fold every paper perfectly and to flip it squarely onto the stoop from a speeding bike."