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Why I Miss Phone Books

I had a 21st century moment the other day. A telephone book came through our mail slot in London and landed with a bang on the floor. It was a mere...

phone booksI had a 21st century moment the other day.

A telephone book came through our mail slot in London and landed with a bang on the floor. It was a mere shadow of a *real* phone book – probably measuring no more than 1/2 inch in diameter – but it was a bonafide phone book nonetheless.

My 15 year-old son picked it up, inspected it and turned to me, puzzled: “What’s that?” He asked.

My husband and I stared back at him in disbelief.

Not to go all 19th century on you, but man, did that make me feel old. And nostalgic.

I knew this because in our recent frenzy to declutter our home, my husband’s immediate instinct was to throw the phone book out. After all, who needs a phone book? It will just sit on a shelf somewhere gathering dust before invariably being tossed the next time we have occasion to tidy up.

And yet, I found myself resisting throwing this one away, almost as if in giving it up, I was losing something powerful that I might one day regret.

So what’s with my attachment to phone books, you ask?

Much like mood rings or candy necklaces, we all have an emotional attachment to objects that remind us of childhood. In the case of phone books, they take me straight back to the kitchen of the house I grew up in in suburban New Jersey and the colourful, chaotic and cacophonous room that housed our White Pages and its corporate sister, The Yellow Pages. Seeing that phone book all these many years later it as as if I were suddenly back in that room, competing with the dog and the classical music station and my three siblings as we struggled to dominate the nightly family dinner.

But it’s more than that. Seeing a real, live phone book was also a lovely reminder of that frisson that accompanied the process of discovery around someone’s “details” (as we say here in the U.K.) when I was young. You’d make a new friend at school or discover a boy or girl you had a crush on or possibly just wanted to know the street your weird math teacher lived on. And so you went and paged through that vast, floppy tome of ripped, extensively underlined and coffee stained white pages to learn that your one true love (or physics partner…or jerky guy at the pizza parlor…or uptight lady at the reference desk of the local library) had a phone number. And somehow, knowing that small piece of information – that number – gave you some small measure of power. Or at least you believed that it did.

My inner social media junkie notwithstanding, seeing this phone book even made me long for the days when *all*  you might know about a person was their phone number and their address. And you had to imagine the rest. “Oh, he lives on such and such a street and goes to *that* junior high. Maybe I’ll ride my bicycle over there one day after school and see what color his house is painted or if he has a big back yard.”

And remember how strange it was when someone’s number was “unlisted?” We thought people were obsessively private if they didn’t share their phone numbers with a bunch of strangers. Ha! Now we have lawsuits over whether it’s fair game to reveal someone’s sexual orientation/behavior on line. Kind of makes you long for the days when “the dark web” sounded like the name of a Star Trek episode.

I’ve written before about how nostalgia is a huge part of growing up. I don’t quite put phone books in the same category as the place you grew up or your college friends or your first love – the sorts of things that can truly inspire that odd mix of longing, regret and fondness that nostalgia conjures up.

But it did feel strange – for just that brief moment – to be overcome with a desire for it to be 1975 again.

And then I threw the phone book in the bin.

Image: Auckland Yellow Pages via Wikipedia.com

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