This week’s obituary

The relentless march of time and technology claimed another victim – the residential phone book.
So read the lede to an article in last Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. AP posted its obituary yesterday. So it’s official. The White Pages are dead.  Funny, I looked up a number in the phone book the other day, thinking as I was doing so, how long has it been since I’ve used this? These tomes are still delivered to our door every year. What I noticed over the past decade was how frustratingly unreliable the paper phone book had become, rife with typos and omissions. My paranoid side attributed the shoddy quality to Verizon’s insidious business plan to turn incompetence into profits, 39 cents at a time. Printing wrong phone numbers or misspelled names forces more people to call Directory Assistance. But in the context of Obsolescing, I wonder if shabbiness and unreliability often precede final death throes (see newspapers, for example).

Phone books hold special nostalgia for me and my family as they were the major resource in my father’s business as a Hollywood researcher. The bulk of work done at de Forest Research was name-checking, and his immense library held every major city phone book, past and present. When a Jonah Cross showed up in a 1930s LA directory, my father recommended “Chinatown’s” producers change their villain’s first name to “Noah,”to avoid any potential lawsuits. My father always jokes that was his one contribution to cinematic art.

As a summer employee of de Forest Research, I logged many hours poring over the fine print on those flimsy pages. I took pleasure in what was basically a mindless, mechanical task by noting certain patterns and coincidences, discovering intriguingly unusual names (who is “Z Methuselah IV”?)  and enjoying the occasional accidental poetry in those corner juxtapositions of letters (Zip-Zub, or even better, Boy-Bra).

But then I’m weird.

I can’t really imagine much weeping over the loss of the phone book. Children who need a boost to sit at the family dinner table will have to find a substitute, of course. Still, like an encyclopedia, the phone directory, especially the fat directory of a major city, gave the illusion of completeness. The phone book held an entire world between its pasteboard covers. Of course, the internet holds a far vaster world, yet, lacking the corporeal heft of a dictionary, encyclopedia, or phone book, it feels somehow less complete. We have easy access to the parts but no sense of the whole.


4 responses to “This week’s obituary

  1. One function of the old White Pages can’t be perfectly replaced by online searches–the fiction writer’s browse for likely names. Let’s see, I need a good Polish-sounding name beginning with P. The White Pages quickly yield Piorkowski, Podolski, Polkowski, and many more. A Google search for “Polish surnames” does turn up some useful sites, but they’re much harder to use. A writer could waste the daily three minutes of inspiration trying to extract from the web the same information that the old phone book yields so readily.

  2. Phone books make great doorstops. That’s one use that won’t be digitally replaced.

  3. Kellam de Forest

    Your account of telephone books at de Forest Research brought back fond memories, Another name invented by de Forest Research is Archie Bunker of All in the Family. The name in the pilot script was Eddie Bunker. There was only one Edward Bunker listed in the Queens telephone book. We suggested Archibald (Archie). The rest as they say is history.

    I hope some of your essays can be collected and published in a medium that has a wider readership such as a printed book despite the fact that the printed book is obsolescing too.

    Love, Father

  4. Kellam, that’s the best history! I can’t wait to tell my family.

    There was a time when I made most of my freelance income digging up stories from phone books in the library. I spent years in a fruitless, happy search for another Archie: Archimedes Zzzzyandottie I, the last listing in the Manhattan white pages. Each time I called, either a sultry female or criminal-sounding male answered, and invariably they hung up whenever I asked for Mr. Z.

    And that, on a much more quotidian level, is also history.


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