BROOKE GLADSTONE: The phone book is a catalog of phone numbers, a metaphor for boredom, a booster seat, a doorstop, a punch line. Here’s Steve Martin in The Jerk.
[CLIP FROM THE JERK]
STEVE MARTIN AS NAVIN R. JOHNSON: Nothing? Are you kidding? Page 73, Johnson, Navin R.! I’m somebody now! Millions of people look at this book every day! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity – your name in print – that makes people.
[END CLIP] Ammon Shea is author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book that Everyone Uses but No One Reads. Welcome to On the Media.
AMMON SHEA: Hi. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you previously penned a book called Reading the OED. So you have a thing for reference books?
AMMON SHEA: I do, in fact, have a certain bent for reference books. I'll admit it. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Why?
AMMON SHEA: I think that they're underutilized. I think we only use reference books for the ostensible purpose for which they were printed, and they can really provide us with so much more. After I published a book about reading the dictionary, I started meeting people who came up to me and confessed that they like to read the train schedule. And at first I really thought these people were obviously lunatics, and then one of them explained to me that what he does is – say he'll have a train schedule from Paris to Istanbul or something, and he’s not thinking, you know, a garden, or at 11:37 a.m. He’s remembering the last time he was in Paris. He’s remembering the last time he met an old lover at the garden or something. And so, this random assemblage of numbers and digits on a page suddenly becomes this wonderful like Proustian way of revisiting his past or his fantasies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There have in the past been efforts to give the phone book a bit of literary flair.
AMMON SHEA: There have. And I'm sorry to say most of them have not survived. In the 1990s, a fellow in Long Island named Rodney Ryan, who prints local Yellow Pages there, liked poetry, and so he would stick in little bits and pieces of poems next to, you know, the categories that he thought they would match was. So there was this beautiful Emily Dickinson line, “Until the moss had reached our lips and covered up our names,” about tombstones, and that went next to undertakers [BROOKE LAUGHS] or something like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Certainly you needed to know where to find people before there were telephones, so there must have been proto phone books, right?
AMMON SHEA: Well, there were directories, city directories before there were telephone directories, and the first one dates to 1665. It was in New Amsterdam, what’s obviously now New York City. But if you look at the old ones, a lot of the times they're terribly incomplete, and so they'll say things like William Johnson, carpenter, and that’s it [BROOKE LAUGHS], and they don't say [LAUGHING] anything else about him. They're not terribly helpful. And regular directories and telephone directories coexisted for a number of years, and eventually telephone directories replaced the need for having another directory.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Early telephone books contained instructions. Phones were relatively new at the time -
AMMON SHEA: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and so people had to be told how to use them. You quote from a New York City telephone directory, 1885: “To call, press in the button and turn the crank once only. Unhook the listening telephone – that’s the receiver – and put it close to your ear. When Central Office will inquire, what number, give Central Office a number of person wanted, and upon receiving the answer, all right, hang up receiver. Wait till bell rings.”
AMMON SHEA: Sometimes these instructions would go on for a full page –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - or a page and a half. They really [LAUGHS] wanted to make sure that everybody knew how to use this. And people did have trouble with using the telephone. And there’s a wonderful story in this book by a fellow named Herbert Casson, who wrote an early history of the telephone, and he describes how when they first had telephones they set them up on a stage in New York City. People would come up on stage. They became incredibly nervous. They would shout into the receiver, are you there, are you there, are you there, can you hear me, kind of how people do with cell phones sometimes.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] But, again, nobody knew how to use this new technology intuitively, so it required a certain amount of instruction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in spite of the billions of phone books that have been printed over the years, they've never been treated as worth preserving.
AMMON SHEA: Almost never are they treated as something worth preserving. There are a couple of notable exceptions. My personal absolute favorite is a 1958 Cuban telephone directory, I think, and it was the last book before the Cuban Revolution. And, inexplicably, somebody fleeing the Cuban Revolution decided [LAUGHING] they just had to take their telephone book with them. It’s the only one of its kind, I think, and it’s currently in the archives at the University of Miami, and it’s an enormously important document. I mean, this is one of the things that I find so delightful about the telephone book is that it’s such an unemotional comprehensive listing. How else are you going to have a record of all the stores that were in prerevolutionary Cuba? This telephone book now is the most comprehensive record, in some respects, of what life was like at that time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it's interesting. In this era of portability there is nothing less portable than the phone book. Does that mean that very soon it'll be a relic?
AMMON SHEA: Well, I think it’s a little bit hard to say. There’s a certain section of the population that is really, feels very strongly about keeping the White Pages. In 2009 in Ohio, when they decided that AT&T didn't want to send the White Pages out to everybody, they asked for permission from the public utilities to not do this, and they were told, well, it’s fine. Just you have to take out an ad in the local newspaper saying you’re only going to send out a telephone book if somebody asks for one. And so many people called up frantic or furious [LAUGHS] that they might not be getting their White Pages that they actually crashed the AT&T call center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Huh! But I do sense a real generational divide, because a lot of times when producers on this show can't find somebody, I'll say, did you try the phone book? And –
AMMON SHEA: [LAUGHS] Yeah, there is a –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s a certain element of confusion when they look at me.
AMMON SHEA: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, it used to be an expression – look me up, I'm in the book. The telephone book used to just simply be referred to as “the book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Finally, let's ponder the existential element to the phone book. It’s a mysterious compendium of countless existences, including your own. The late lamented memoirist, Harvey Pekar, described the wonder in that in one of his American Splendor comic books. Here’s Paul Giamatti performing Harvey Pekar.
PAUL GIAMATTI AS HARVEY PIKAR: Nineteen-sixty was the year I got my first apartment and my first phone book. Now, imagine my surprise when I looked up my name and saw that in addition to me, another Harvey Pekar was listed.
[PHONE RINGING] Then in the '70s, I noticed that a third Harvey Pekar was listed in the phone book.
[PHONE RINGING] What were they like, I thought.
[PHONE RINGING] Where do they come from? What do they do? What’s in a name? Who is Harvey Pekar?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I guess we'll just have to look elsewhere for confirmation that we exist.
AMMON SHEA: [LAUGHS] In all the time I've spent looking through telephone books I have not yet ever come across another Ammon Shea. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Ammon Shea, thank you very much.
AMMON SHEA: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ammon Shea is the author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book that Everyone Uses but No One Reads, just released from Perigee Books.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt, with more help from Nerida Brownlee, Bonnie Watt and Sarah Abdurrahman, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was John DeLore. Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs and the head that wears the crown. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. [FUNDING CREDITS] *** [END] ***