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Opening Arguments

Book report

How the phone book changed America:

The phone itself was a pretty big deal, of course, helping intimacy transcend proximity. But phone books provided a crucial element to the system: intrusiveness. In the beginning of 1880, Shea writes, there were 30,000 telephone subscribers in the U.S. At the end of the year, that number had grown to 50,000, and because of phone books, each one of them was exposed to the others as never before. While many American cities had been compiling databases of their inhabitants well before the phone was invented, listing names, occupations, and addresses, individuals remained fairly insulated from each other. Contacting someone might require a letter of introduction, a facility for charming butlers or secretaries, a long walk.

Phone books eroded these barriers. They were the first step in our long journey toward the pandemic self-surveillance of Facebook. “Hey strangers!” anyone who appeared in their pages ordained. “Here's how to reach me whenever you feel like it, even though I have no idea who you are.”

Everything you wanted to know about a city, in one book that you could fit in a briefcase. If you want to know what a place is really like, with all the local flavor included, two indispensable tools are still the Yellow Pages and the newspaper classified ads. This is one area in which I haven't gone completely digital. It's more effective to look up a whole category of things on the computer or smartphone, but thumbing through the phone book is still fun, like browsing through the dictionary.


Bob G.
Sun, 10/31/2010 - 8:34am

But I have to admit that those phonebooks make GREAT backstops for my BB/pellet guns...!
See...nothing EVER really "goes to waste".