Why the Phone Book is Worth a Read

Reading books that nobody reads has become something of a specialty for Ammon Shea. “I’ve been fascinated with reference materials, and why we don’t treat them as interesting books,” said Shea, author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He left aside catalogues, atlases, and encyclopedias in favor of the phone book. “It’s the most curiously unexamined book, especially considering that it’s the most frequently published book in the history of publishing.” And other than being a book, the phone book can be a stepping stool, a booster seat, and most inventively, in a story Shea was convinced was urban legend, bullet proofing: the perfect size for the hollow walls of railway cars wanting protection from bandits. Below, Shea, author of The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads, chats with Zócalo about what the phone book evokes and why it’s worth not only the paper it’s printed on, but billions of dollars.

Q. What’s the purpose of the phone book – other than bulletproofing trains?

The Phone Book, by Ammon SheaA. It speaks greatly to its ubiquity. Everyone has one. If everyone had an atlas in their house, it would probably have similar uses as well. You can see something like this, though it’s not quite as true, with the family Bible in the 19th century. People would write important family dates in it – births, deaths, weddings. Most households did have a family Bible, and though it’s not as common as people like to think, it was used in this sense.

The telephone book is far more common than the family Bible ever was. It’s also very cheap. It’s a stepping stool, it’s a booster seat. Errol Garner, one of my favorite jazz piano players who’s five-foot-two, used to travel with his own copy of the Manhattan white pages that he would sit on. There have been hundreds of cases of people storing things in the phone book – money, love letters – and then they’d have to get rid of them because the phone company would come collect the books.

One of the things that separates the telephone book from other books is that the phone companies did used to collect them. Now they’re asked to throw them away. Before, most telephone companies, when they distributed the books, they’d pay people – boy scouts, the homeless, whoever they could get – a certain amount of money for each book dropped off, like five cents, and less for bringing it back, maybe two cents. These books are constantly being changed. They’re regarded as disposable.

Q. Does the content of the phone book matter?

A. It depends. There was a Supreme Court case in the 1990s which I mention a couple times in the book, Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co. It was a phone book company found to have copied the information from another company, and the people who had initially published it sued. The case went to the Supreme Court, and it was ruled that the information in the phone book was not copyrightable. The quote from Sandra Day O’Connor was that the end product was a “garden variety” directory, “devoid of even the slightest trace of creativity.”

She was a little too down on it I thought. I prefer Steve Martin’s take from “The Jerk” – right before he’s in the gas station and some maniac looks in the phone book for someone to shoot and finds him. Steve Martin’s character was so excited to see his name in the book because it meant he had arrived.

I would say yes, the content does matter. I don’t quite agree with Sandra Day O’Connor for several reasons. I don’t think anything is devoid of creativity. I think there’s also an enormous amount of information you can get from looking into a telephone book. An extreme example is the University of Miami – I’m pretty sure – has a copy of the last telephone book in Cuba that was printed before Castro took over. It’s one of their most important and frequently requested objects.

The phone book, especially the yellow pages, because they’re dispassionate and unemotional records about what they’re documenting, is very complete. They don’t overlook anything. Nobody cares who’s selling a possum in New York City or record parts in Havana in 1942, but it includes that. It gives you an interesting and complete picture of what was happening.

Q. What was your experience of reading these books?

A. The ones I looked at mostly were the yellow and white pages from when I was 10 years old. For most people, or for me at least, 10 or 11 is the age you start to get a sense of the world outside your home. I was conscious of what stores and establishments were in my neighborhood in New York, but our memories are flawed and biased and incomplete. Our memories are incompetent in some sense. I found the yellow pages to be this remarkably unemotional view of the New York of my childhood – unemotional but extraordinarily comprehensive. It was this wonderful memory tool. I could browse through it. And I would see the Gimbels East department store, which has not existed for decades now. I went with my grandmother when she came to the city from the Bronx. The Frugal Frog, the consignment store, closed 30 years ago. It’s not special to anyone, except, well, to my memory. No one is going to write a tribute to this consignment store on 88th and 2nd Avenue that closed in 1978. But when you see it printed there, the phone book because wonderfully evocative.

Q. Was it difficult to find them?

A. No one keeps them. They’re really unwanted. It’s hard to find them on paper, too. The New York City public library has a pretty fine collection on microfilm, but I find microfilm very unlovely for reading. It makes me sick, like trying to read something outside of a moving car. But despite that collection, I wanted a bunch of books from Boston in the early 1960s, and the library said they have them, but then they couldn’t find them. They realized that they lent them to the Library of Congress 20 years ago and no one had thought to get them back because I guess nobody asked. They do have a complete run of New York books, going back to 1880.

For paper copies, I made the acquaintance of people who collect the books – a guy in New York whose name is Charles Eric Gordon, he’s a lawyer and investigative counsel, which I believe is a kind of lawyerly investigator, not quite a private eye. He collects telephone books and he has over a thousand, mostly New York but a few hundred from Chicago as well. For his work he often finds people through telephone books – distant relatives who bequeathed money in a will and no one has seen them for 30 or 40 years.

Q. Are phone books disappearing?

A. They’re disappearing and exploding at once. I think the reason behind it is money. The white pages are gradually going away. The yellow pages, if anything, are increasing. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Bill which, I believe in an effort to spur competition, said that anyone can publish the yellow pages, not just the local telephone company. So yellow pages sprouted all over. There are some areas in the U.S. where people will get seven different yellow pages. The only thing we know about these things is they’re classified business directories on yellow paper. Very few people say, “That’s not the real yellow pages.” There is no such thing.

The yellow pages are also enormously profitable. It changes from year to year but it’s something like $15 billion in annual revenue. That’s not in any league with natural gas or oil, but I think Hollywood, in its best year ever, took in $10 billion. Everyone knows about movies but no one knows anything about yellow pages. They slide under most people’s radar as a monetary thing, But they are profitable and easy to make. A lot of businesses think they need to advertise in the yellow pages, and that’s expensive. No one wants to get rid of them. It’s a license to print money.

The white pages are starting to disappear because few people want them. The phone company doesn’t make money off them. I believe in most areas there’s a minor surcharge in your telephone bill that goes toward the cost of printing and delivering the white pages. It’s a hassle, really. The telephone companies are trying to get rid of the white pages, but they’re required by law to print them. In a few areas, notably Ohio and New York, it’s AT&T that’s trying to stop sending out the white pages. They went before the Public Utilities Commission last year and said it’s a waste to print them and that no one uses them. the Public Utilities Commission in Ohio said they didn’t have to print them. But they did have to put an ad in the newspaper saying that people could call a number to request the white pages. The ad ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and so many people called the number that they crashed the phone call center. Many people were really worried that they weren’t going to get the white pages.

In New York, Verizon filed a petition, similarly, to not have to print the white pages. I think that’s still up in the air. They were using a poll from Gallup that found that 11 percent of households use the white pages, down from 25 percent in 2005. It’s a small number, certainly. The battle though seems to be over opting in or opting out. Opting in would mean that you have to call them and say, yes I want my white pages. Opting out means you have to call and say please do not send me the phone book. It’s ridiculous because people are so lazy. The figure I saw, for various areas, is that if you do an opt-in, only two percent will ask for the white pages. But if you do an opt out – and they tried it in Norway, a much more environmentally friendly place than here – only seven percent call up and say don’t send me one. These numbers don’t match up. People are too lazy to call, is all.

So I think the white pages are gradually disappearing and the yellow pages are not.

Q. You mentioned finding appeal in reading the yellow pages, but what about the white pages?

A. For the most part, it’s a trick on your own memory. It’s impossible not to think of your past if you look at an old phone book. You’ll look up the people you knew, people you went to school, people you didn’t like. You’ll think about people who you might not think about otherwise. I found the yellow pages more personally interesting to look at in terms of memory. The white pages are a little dryer, but they can be fun to look at too.

Most of us don’t realize this, but if you give someone a phone book from a momentous period in their lives, they’re going to find they’re significantly more interested in the content than they would have thought. Of course, most think it’s the most boring thing ever printed so any interest is more than they thought they’d  have. But I do think that most people don’t think about what they were doing when they were 10 and where they shopped and what happened to the neighbor who lived above them.

In a more cerebral fashion I would say that when we read, we become hobbled by plot. We’re so used to having everything spelled out. I love reading, I’m not trying to discount the importance of that. one of the things that made me interested in this was after I wrote about reading the dictionary, I’d meet people who read other nonnarrative texts. I met people who read old train schedules and I thought, these people are insane. What could there be in a train schedule? I’d shake their hands gingerly and try to move away. But you’re not reading “Trenton to Washington at 9:37,” you’re reading an imaginative exercise. You’re looking at places you visited. You’re revisiting your memories. You’re seeing where you want to go and what it would be like to travel there. You’re thinking about friends you traveled with. Instead of being a sad endeavor of lonely people with hair in their ears, it’s a marvelous and muscular and energetic imaginative exercise. It made me feel feeble to need plot. These people can read anything. It’s beautiful. If you can do that with a train schedule, you can do it with a phone book, and that has its own beauty.

*Photo courtesy Frank Hebbert.


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