Curiosity Does The Walking In 'The Phone Book'

It sounds like a punchline, but Ammon Shea has written a history of the phone book. What makes it more interesting than reading the actual phone book is the fact that Shea loves nothing more than a juicy tangent. Guest host Rebecca Roberts talks with the author about The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

It sounds like a punchline, but Ammon Shea has written a history of the phone book, really. What makes Ammon Shea's book "The Phone Book" more interesting than reading the actual phone book is the fact that Shea loves nothing more than a juicy tangent. So, in the course of "The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads," you will also learn about delivering mail by torpedo, and the habits of the cuttlefish, and Huey Long's recipe for Roquefort cheese salad dressing.

Ammon Shea joins me now from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. AMMON SHEA (Author, "The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads"): Hi. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: So you've already proved what a word nerd you are by reading "The Oxford English Dictionary." Did you really have to take on the phone book?

Mr. SHEA: Well, I thought it was kind of appalling that this is the book that everybody has been touched by in some way. I mean almost everybody - maybe not people who were born within the last few years. But pretty much, everybody has had some experience with the telephone book and yet, nobody has ever written anything about it. And I thought that was somewhat unfair.

ROBERTS: So what did you find when you started poking into the history?

Mr. SHEA: The thing that kind of drew me to it more than anything else is that there was this wonderful story that I found about a fruit company in Central America. In 1935, apparently they'd been getting kind of hijacked by bandits - their payroll train. And they made this very fortuitous and kind of wonderful discovery that the bandits would shoot through the side of the train with these high-powered bullets.

But the Manhattan "White Pages" were just the right size so they could fit inside the partitions of the train. And if they filled up the entire train with, you know, the sides of the train with telephone books, it was pretty much impregnable and bullet-proof.

So they ordered, you know, several thousand copies of the Manhattan "White Pages" and they bullet-proofed their trains with telephone books.

And it was just kind of a whimsical absurd, but yet somehow a delightful image, this kind of train that's been bullet-proofed by obsolete telephone numbers rolling away. And, you know, people always think the telephone book is either boring or just a complete waste of paper. And I think it's really not true.

ROBERTS: Well, I hate to destroy your sort of romantic optimism about it, but A, that story turned out to be one you couldn't verify, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEA: Yeah, that's true. That story has turned up in a number of different places. No.

ROBERTS: Also that's a use of the phone book not actually for finding people's phone numbers.

Mr. SHEA: Right. So you can say that the phone book has a lot of different uses. It's true, I couldn't verify that. Well, the actual problem is that that story crops up in a lot of different places. There was a mobster, apparently, in Chicago at some point who had his limousine bullet-proofed with telephone books. There were revolutionaries in South America rather than Central who did the same thing.

I like to think that perhaps the telephone book just protected all of these people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEA: And that maybe all of the stories are true.

ROBERTS: The telephone book story that pervades Washington is the idea of a senator reading from it in order to keep a filibuster going.

Mr. SHEA: Right. And that seems to be entirely untrue. Strom Thurmond's famous filibuster, which - by the way, is a really horribly boring thing to read - I don't recommend that to anybody. He never read from the telephone book. Huey Long never read from the telephone book. Robert La Follette never read from the telephone book. All these people are supposed to have done so. And I believe it's just because people hold up a telephone book as an obvious case of the most boring thing you could possibly read from. And so they ascribe this to these people's filibusters.

ROBERTS: And I would like to point out that you are a guy who has willingly read both the dictionary and several phone books, and you think Strom Thurmond's filibuster is just deadly.

Mr. SHEA: Yeah, it really says a lot about Strom Thurmond's filibuster that I think it's boring. Well, you know, the dictionary is a great read and the telephone book can be a great read. I know that people don't like to think this. They don't like to believe it.

I had a high school teacher, Frank McCourt, before he became a famous writer, was my high school English teacher and many other people's. And he used to say things are not boring, it's people who are bored. And I think we all have some high school teachers somewhere along the way who says something that stuck with us. And for me this is that thing.

And what I took from that is that you don't ever have to be bored in life. And if you can find something interesting in the telephone book, well, then you can probably find something interesting in every aspect of your life. There are interesting things to be found there. You do not have to be bored when you look at a telephone book. And for me, that came up when I looked at the telephone book of my childhood. And it's this remarkable collection of memories.

If you ever doubt that the telephone book can hold something of interest, go find a telephone book from when you were eight, or 10 or 12 years old, from where you were born, and look through it. And I can pretty much guarantee you there'll be something there that will - it'll just evoke memories and it'll tickle your emotions.

ROBERTS: I have to ask: What does Huey Long's Roquefort cheese salad dressing have to do with the history of the phone book?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEA: Well, nothing terribly direct. But, as I said, I was looking into the ostensible reading of the telephone book during these filibusters by various politicians. And Huey Long's, it was really very funny. And in the middle of his, I think it was 17-hour or so, filibuster he gave all these recipes from, you know, from his hometown. He gave a recipe for pot liquor, which is a really not terribly appetizing thing.

Then he had a recipe for Roquefort cheese salad dressing that I thought it was kind of nice. I thought, well, you know, it's not fair that the only place that should have ever been printed is the "Congressional Record," because nobody ever looks at the "Congressional Record." So I reprinted Huey Long's salad dressing recipe.

ROBERTS: And it is faithfully reprinted along with his comments in your book, "The Phone Book." Have you ever actually made it?

Mr. SHEA: I did not actually make it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Is your book, "The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads," is it sort of an obituary for a dying publication?

Mr. SHEA: They are not terribly necessary, I think, because most people can find just about anything you would find in the "White Pages" you can find on the Internet. But nobody makes money off of the "White Pages," they're not a real industry.

The "Yellow Pages," however, somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 billion a year in revenue from the advertisements. So there is a good deal of opposition, say, corporate opposition to no longer printing the "Yellow Pages." And I think the "White Pages" will, in the next few decades, disappear. But I do not think that the "Yellow Pages" are going away any time soon.

ROBERTS: If we don't need the phone books for phone numbers any more, what else can we do with them to?

Mr. SHEA: Oh, you can always sit on them. You know, there's a...

ROBERTS: Especially if you're, say, three and half, four.

Mr. SHEA: Right, three and a half or if you're very short. I mean one of my favorite jazz piano players, Erroll Garner, used to travel with his own personal copy - had a special copy of the Manhattan "White Pages" that he took on tour with him. Because Erroll Garner was a wonderful piano player but he was also only five-foot-two, and so he would put the phone book on his piano bench whenever he was on tour.

But you can use it to sit on. You can use it for, I don't know, all kinds of things. You can bullet-proof your railway cars or your limousine against, you know, banditos or rival drug dealers or something. You can do all sorts of things with the telephone books. They've been turned into ceiling tiles and kitty litter. And I saw a wonderful picture online of a woman, I think named Jolie Parsons(ph), who created an entire dress out of telephone books.

There's an artist, Gabriel Orozco, who does some great, great pieces with telephone books, where he takes the entire telephone book and he cuts out all the names and just keeps all the numbers. And he pastes all the strips of numbers together into this enormous scroll. And it's kind of striking and beautiful when you just see it all together.

ROBERTS: Ammon Shea, his new book is called "The Phone Book: The Curious History of The Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads." He joined us from our New York bureau.

Thanks so much.

Mr. SHEA: Oh, thank you for having me.

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