Phone Books: A Little Slice of 1962


My daughter is a smart girl. I don’t like to brag, but she has an IQ that is off the charts and is currently applying to a number of highly selective colleges. But if you hand her a phone book she will look at it the same uncomprehending way that Early Man looked at fire. There will be grunting and fear and a dim, bewildered expression. Drooling may spontaneously occur.

This is because my daughter is 17-years-old and the absolute only way she knows how to look up a phone number is by using some type of electronic device – either a PC or a laptop, a BlackBerry, a Droid or on an iPad. In a pinch she will dial 411 on her cell phone and ask a nice, faceless lady for the number she needs. But to her, a phone book is just a big old pile of wasted paper. And she is not alone in thinking this way – for most people (certainly anyone under the age of 30) phone books are as outdated as harem pants, mullets, and Boyz II Men concerts.

Even I, as technologically challenged as I am, now use the Internet to look up phone numbers. So there is no longer any reason for me to haul this heavy and cumbersome tome out of the linen closet – where it gathers dust along with nearly identical versions from 2008 and 2009 because I have no idea how to get rid of them. When I visit friends who live in apartment buildings I will frequently see piles of unclaimed and unwanted phone books getting progressively ratty as they are left in the lobby to rot.

No one seems to know how to dispose of these massive paper-wasters; the EPA estimates that only 18 percent of all phone books are recycled each year – many of them on the day they are received.

According to Green Valley Recycling in Los Gatos California, if all Americans recycled their phone books, it would free up two million cubic yards of landfill space per year. The problem is that many towns seem reluctant to recycle phone books (my town claims to offer this service, but the local trash collectors make a deliberate point of collecting newspapers and leaving the White Pages behind.)

Which is why my heart sank when this bulky throwback to a simpler time appeared in my driveway this morning – unbidden, unwelcome and unwieldy as ever.

It seems to me that there should be some way to distribute these anachronisms only to people who want and need them – the AARP’s mailing list perhaps. Or maybe they could be handed out at Talbot’s, along with sensible shoes and elastic waistband slacks.

My daughter (who knows exactly how old I am) asked me recently why we ever used phone books – even back in the “old days.” When I told her that personal computers had not yet been invented, she asked why we didn’t just use our cell phones to dial information.

Maybe she isn’t as smart as I thought.

Image: edkohler