Our book today is the paperback release of a history that’s near and dear to my daily routine: Devin Leonard’s utterly delightful Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, brought out Grove Press last year to nerdishly enthusiastic reviews (including one from USA Today that included the simple, true line, “What’s most remarkable is the way [the] book makes you care what happens to its main protagonist, the U.S. Postal Service itself”). I read it and loved it, and I pored through it with the loving attention you might give to the pages of your high school yearbook.
Like many people in the book-world, I live and die by the US Postal Service. I get deliveries from two different USPS stalwarts every single day: in the early afternoon, the mail-truck swings by, with the driver lugging a plastic mail-tub of book-packages up to the porch, chatting for a bit, then driving off, and an hour or two later, the on-foot mail carrier arrives, bringing me now only the day’s harvest of magazines but also any last few stray single book packages that weren’t on the mail truck. And since I also get FedEx and UPS deliveries every day, I’m pretty much the precise target-audience for Devin Leonard’s book; I’m naturally curious about the delivery service that brings me such reliable spikes of enjoyment – not just bookish but also personal enjoyment, since I’ve noticed that my USPS people are friendlier and more outgoing than the others.
Reading Leonard’s book, it’s easy to see why: scarcely any kind of worker in the country deals with more people on a daily face-to-face basis than the men and women who deliver the mail. Six days a week, those workers actually walk out from the 36, 723 post offices in America and make direct physical contact with the homes and businesses of every single person in the country, creating a living webwork of interaction between 300,000 letter carriers and everybody else. The USPS delivers a staggering 513 million pieces of mail every day – according to Leonard, that’s 40 percent of the mail delivered on any given day in the whole world. And as I could attest from those daily rituals of mine, the USPS numbers dwarf those of other carriers:
People often talk about how the postal service is lumbering and inefficient compared with private sector competitors such as UPS and FedEx. But the USPS delivers more items in nine days than UPS does in a year. It transports more in seven days than FedEx brings to its customers in a year. In 2011, Oxford Strategic Consulting, an English firm, studied the postal services in developed countries and found that the USPS was by far the most efficient at handling letters, delivering 268,894 per employee – twice as many as the UK’s Royal Mail and five times that of Germany’s Deutsche Post. The USPS refers to the study proudly, though being the world’s most efficient letter handler doesn’t have the same cachet that it did a generation ago.
That elegiac note – of changing times, of falling revenues and slackening importance – sounds throughout Leonard’s book. He gives a very spirited history of the postal system in America, tells all the grand stories of postal triumphs and iniquities, of postal strikes and famous – and infamous – postal workers (the chapter “Going Postal,” which is about just what you think it’s about, makes hilarious if alarming reading), and he’s a very good storyteller, so none of this feels like space-filling exposition. But always in the background there’s the sense that the whole edifice of the USPS is shakier than most people would believe:
Now the USPS is slowly vanishing. It has sold off its historic post offices. It has closed processing plants. A decade and a half ago, the USPS employed 905,766 people; in 2014, it had a workforce of 617, 877. But even as the USPS shrinks, its losses continue to swell. By its own calculations, it owed nearly $71 billion in mid-2015. The possibility of that money being repaid seems unlikely.
By the time I finished Neither Snow Nor Rain (and by the time I finished my in-paperback re-read), that unwanted note was sounding in my head, that almost unthinkable chance that in my lifetime the USPS could go out of business and morph into something very different – and, inevitably, something worse – than the sturdy, trustworthy thing that now makes up such a large part of my day. I’d really hate to think that Devin Leonard’s book is memorial in addition to being a history.
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