There it was, at the end of the driveway—a shapeless pale green mass. I was hesitant at first but then I noticed there were similar masses at the end of every driveway up and down our street. I approached it carefully, and as I got closer I could see it was a plastic bag, and inside the bag was…a phone book. It was just the yellow pages, for local businesses—I don’t think they publish a residential phone book anymore, or, if they do, it goes exclusively to telemarketers who, when I ask how they got my number, tell me it was dialed at random and, when I ask, “Okay, how’d you get my name then?” hang up on me, but that’s another story.
I can’t remember the last time we got an actual phone book. Maybe we got one last year around this same time and I just can’t remember it because, well, that was a year ago, and I immediately put it in the recycling bin because that’s all it was good for, but I don’t think so. I don’t think we got one the year before that, or even the year before that, or, if we did, I can’t remember it because, well, that was three years ago and the recycling bin’s been emptied a few dozen times since then.
There’s something really annoying about getting a phone book these days. I’m old enough to remember when the yellow pages were advertised with “let your fingers do the walking” even though you were eventually going to have to use your feet eventually, and walking on your fingers is just asking for broken fingers. And also there seemed to be something deeply recursive about advertising a big book of advertising that was given away free anyway. Maybe that’s why even before the internet became the most widespread and popular way to find information, including phone numbers, phone books became a prop for tough guys who’d show their strength by tearing one in half. And I’m pretty sure someone’s already made a joke about how hard it is to tear the internet in half but you don’t have to be that strong to destroy a laptop or even a tablet, but you show me someone who can tear a warehouse full of servers in half and I’m not going to stick around because I’m sure that monster will destroy us all. I’m also old enough to remember phone booths and, for that matter, when a call was just ten cents, and I remember the time my friends and I looked up the number for a pizza place and found two that were close by, so we picked one, called in a pickup order, and then went to the wrong one because we didn’t have Google Street View to check and see where we were going before we went there.
I can’t even imagine why I’d use the phone book now—and I say this as someone who still reads, and even prefers, regular printed books, since there’s something baffling about trying to look up, say, gardening equipment, only to find “See: Plants”. I see a lot of plants which is why I want the gardening equipment.
On the other hand there is something to be said for the discrete, even private value of the phone book. It’s not keeping tabs on what tabs I have open or recording my browsing history. It’s not going to start throwing targeted ads at me based on the page where I happened to stop. If I want something embarrassingly personal like a shoe tree or a place that sells ceramic aardvarks and takes cash only I can probably find it in the phone book—if I can just figure out where to look.