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Roth, P.

The days of the phone book – along with print media, phone booths and landline telephones – are numbered. Leland Yee, one of San Francisco’s state senators, is responsible for much worthwhile immigration and domestic violence legislation, as well as mandatory ski helmets for children. This month he’s planning to introduce a bill prohibiting telephone companies from sending customers unsolicited white pages. White pages are residential listings, yellow pages commercial: neither name is protected by copyright so anyone can publish them. When I was a child, James Earl Jones did the TV spots for Bell Atlantic’s yellow pages: ‘No other book can match it,’ announced the voice I recognised as Darth Vader’s. No other book except the California State Law Code.

California law, like New York law, currently states that all telephone customers – everyone with a landline – must receive a phone book; an initiative no doubt proposed by lobbyists in order to make advertising in the yellow pages more attractive. Every year piles of phone books are dumped in the hallway of my apartment block, just below the buzzers. They rot there for months, pillows for the homeless, until the superintendent rouses himself and trashes them. I assume he recycles but have never asked. Phone books are made from recycled paper and reconstituted sawdust. But critics of compulsory distribution point out that even recycling is wasteful: the 147 million phone books produced in America each year weigh 804,000 tons: producing that amount of paper releases 1.5 million tons of CO2 and uses 50 billion tons of water.

The chief opponent of compulsory distribution is White Pages Inc., America’s leading online directory and the force behind banthephonebook.org. Phone book supporters say that White Pages Inc. – which built its database in the first place by digitising print white pages – wants to do away with the phone book it owes its existence to in order to boost its web traffic, not out of any ecological concern. Anyway, do you know how wasteful the internet is? How much electricity is used each time you perform a search? Forget global warming, what about the heartwarming image of a technophobe grandmother poring over the phone book for the number of her long lost grandson. Of course, under Yee’s plan she can always ‘opt in’, but why should she have to go to the trouble?

When I was 13 I used the Manhattan directory to try to call Philip Roth. I wanted to read him a story I’d written: boy, girl, loss of virginity in Jewish New Jersey. It didn’t occur to me he might be summering in his ‘clapboard farmhouse up in the Berkshires’; I was only vaguely aware that such places existed. I made my way through a dozen P. Roths before one of them asked to speak to a parent. The lack of a centralised email or mobile phone directory makes tomorrows Roths even more inaccessible for tomorrow’s teenagers. But the loss of the phone book will be felt in other ways too: what will my child sit on to help him reach the dinner table? And what will the teenagers of 2020 try to tear in half when drunk – a laptop?

Comments on “Roth, P.”

  1. Levi Stahl says:

    Paul Collins wrote an interesting piece for Slate back in 2008 about the omnipresence of phone books in this post-phone book age: His rough calculation of ad revenue per phone book? $22.00–more than enough to keep companies producing them for the foreseeable future.

  2. Levi Stahl says:

    Sorry–WordPress erased the link I was trying to embed. Anyway, the article’s easy to Google: Paul Collins, Slate, phone books. It’s worth tracking down for the goofy historical details alone.

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