The Address Book, written by Deirdre Mask, is an investigative novel focused on the social history and culture behind street addresses. She joined QDT for a Q&A about her research.
What was it that got you interested in studying the concepts behind street addresses? Where did you start your research?
Procrastinating on the internet one day, I discovered that most people in the world don’t have reliable street addresses. At first it was just a quirky piece of trivia, but I soon learned that there is a deep connection between poverty and a lack of street addresses. Without a street address, you often can’t get a bank account, for example, and you might struggle to vote. When I learned that organizations like the World Bank saw addresses as a simple way to help lift people out of poverty, I launched this unusual journey. Soon, I was finding powerful stories about addresses all over the world and throughout history—from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany to modern New York—and The Address Book was born.
If there was a thesis statement to this book, what would it be?
All the chapters of the book center on a different place and theme, but they all tend to come back to the same point: that the way we name our streets and number our buildings reveals a lot about the way our societies work, for better or worse. Epidemiologists—or “disease detectives”—often rely on street addresses to help track pandemics in the population. Streets in slums aren’t named because so often the world doesn’t value the people who live there. And the names we give our streets—whether it’s Martin Luther King Drive or General Robert E. Lee Street—can tell us a lot about the past and present of our communities.
The way we name our streets and number our buildings reveals a lot about the way our societies work, for better or worse.
How can communities work together to raise awareness about the issues street addresses raise?
People are already thinking a lot about what street names mean for their communities—the sweeping street name changes in post-apartheid South Africa offer just one example. But a broader awareness of how the lack of addresses affects marginalized people, including the homeless in our own local parks, would push us further in the direction of greater equality. And, of course, thinking about street addresses can also just be fun! Researching a street name might reveal a town’s hidden history, the names of the families who once lived there, and the farms and meadows now so often replaced with shopping centers and subdivisions.
Are there any tangible tips or advice you hope readers take from this book?
When you choose to buy a home, consider the name of the street you’ll live on. You’ll be using it a lot! And, as the book describes, it may just add to—or even take away from—the value of your property.