384: The Phone Book by Ammon Shea

by Gerard

384.6025: Shea, Ammon. The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads. New York: Perigee, 2010. 200 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-53593-2.

The social sciences (300s) explore all the areas that cannot be distilled and quantifies by the hard sciences. One of these areas is how people transport things. This transportation includes not only manufactured goods, but also ideas and messages. The 380s in Dewey are devoted to commerce, communications, and transport. Telecommunication falls nicely under 384. 384.6 is for books on telephony, and 384.6025 is the special place where works on telephone directories go.

The first telephone directory had an unlikely birthplace. On February 21, 1878, 50 businesses were listed in the New Haven, Connecticut Telephone Directory. It was a single piece of cardboard with the title on one side and the listing on the other. And then all hell broke loose. As more and more phones were installed in more and more cities and houses, cities needed a way to find out who had a phone and how you could contact them. (Of interesting note here is the history of central telephone switchboard operators and how their etiquette influenced how we talk on the phone today.)

Ammon Shea’s The Phone Book explores the special place that telephone directories have in our lives. From their humble beginnings to the eccentrics who collect them to the men (and women) who rip them apart for a living to the folks who want to eliminate them, he sheds light on the pockets of humanity whose lives require the phone book and what it means to us. He relates the people who designed the first commercial books, who memorized them, who turned them into art, and who find forgotten people in them.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’ve had it since it came out in paperback two years ago and this was my second time reading it. Most poignant for me was the section on memory and the phone book. Shea acquires a phone book from his boyhood town and year and begins to stroll through the pages. All at once, we get a sense that each mention of a forgotten landmark can bring back wonderful memories. While his lengthy digressions (including one on congressional filibusters) get in the way of the ostensible purpose of the book, they duplicate the same process that reading a phone book invokes: one listing leads to another leads to a memory leads to a story.