White Out?

With all the buzz about the demise of the paper newspaper and the dead-tree book, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the story I read in this morning’s (paper) Providence Journal. Phone companies are phasing out residential phone books.

White pages are going the way of the rotary-dial in Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Florida. In some of these places you’ll be able to receive them on request, but in others they’re disappearing altogether.

I understand the arguments. I don’t like wasting paper any more than you do. Lots of people recycle their white pages as soon as they’re delivered, it seems. In a 2008 Gallup poll, only 11 percent of respondents said they use physical phone books to look up residential numbers. Makes sense. It’s not just that they can find the numbers on line or capture them in their phones’ memories. It’s also that as more and people eschew land lines altogether, the white pages are becoming less and less useful.

And yet I can’t help feeling disappointed, the way Nicholson Baker felt (and I did too, thought a lot less eloquently) about the demise of the card catalogue. Call me old.

But what about people who don’t have internet access? Those people do exist. And they’re not all over the age of 80. Lots of people just can’t afford it. And as libraries cut back their hours, another source of free public internet access gets lost. And even for those people who do have internet access at home, what about broken routers and power failures?

And what about all those incidental uses phone books have filled? Without fat phone books, what will children sit to reach the Thanksgiving table? How will people prop open finicky doors?

Most of all, I’m sad about losing the community record a residential phone book represents.

When we traveled, my father used to read the phone book that came in the hotel room. Naturally, we made fun of him. It was such a nerdy Dad-like thing to do. But he pointed out that you could learn a lot by reading a phone book. By seeing how many columns of Silvas were listed in the Cape Cod book, he got a sense of how many people of Portuguese decent had settled in the area. As a one-time American Studies student and a journalist and a generally nosey person, he was endlessly interested in which ethnic groups lived in which parts of the country. As his daughter, I inherited this fascination.

When we moved to Burlington in 1987, I was the only Horowitz in the book. The book I carried with me when we moved to Rhode Island lists three. In the Providence book there are 17.

As a school librarian, my mother hob-nobbed with lots of children’s writers. Because I was an aspiring author, she was always bringing me tips from her visiting scribes. Mystery writers know the ending before they start, and then work backwards. No one who spends fewer than six hours a day writing can expect to make a living from their craft. Writers get the names for their characters from the phone book.

I took this last tip to heart, and keep two sets of white pages, Burlington and Providence, near my desk expressly for this purpose. That’s where I found the names for Leila’s neighbors in Bat Time, Mr. Perrault and Ms Kottmeir and the bat-fearing Mr Mackety.

In a world without white pages, kids will pull up to the Thanksgiving table on plastic molded booster seats. Pretty round rocks picked up on the beach will prop doors open. People like my father will find other ways to delve into the demographics of places they visit, and writers will find other sources for their characters’ surnames. But I’m keeping my phone books for that purpose. And I still don’t know what people who can’t get on the internet will do.




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3 Responses to “White Out?”

  1. Aimee Swift Says:

    Arghhh! What will be next?

    I’ve been feeling very sentimental lately about the “old days”, before call waiting, before voice mail, even before answering machines, when the phones were attached to the wall. When, if you called some one and they were not near that wall, it just rang and rang. When, if the person you were calling was on another call, you got the busy signal, and you could wait and try back in a few minutes or an hour or the next day or the next week.

    I don’t want to kill trees unnecessarily. I’m sure we can get away without phone books, especially when we can just dial 411 for directory assistance and talk to the automated lady. But it does seem sad somehow.

    I think I will follow your lead, and put the 2010 phone book on the bookshelf next to the dictionary and the thesaurus, in case I don’t get one next year.

  2. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    I like the idea of reading the phone book–I am always sympathetic to those geeky types who will read whatever they can get their hands on. And I have more than once torn out the local map in a hotel room phone book, hoping to find my way around.

  3. Ruth Horowitz Says:

    So you’re the person who was in that hotel room before me, Amalia! No wonder I got lost.

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