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The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads [Paperback]

Ammon Shea

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Book Description

Oct. 5 2010
Read Ammon Shea's blogs and other content on the Penguin Community.

A surprising, lively, and rich history of that ubiquitous doorstop that most of us take for granted.

Ammon Shea is not your typical thirtysomething book enthusiast. After reading the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover (and living to write about it in Reading the OED), what classic, familiar, but little-read book would he turn to next? Yes, the phone book. With his signature combination of humor, curiosity, and passion for combing the dustbins of history, Shea offers readers a guided tour into the surprising, strange, and often hilarious history of the humble phone book.

From the first printed version in 1878 (it had fifty listings and no numbers) to the phone book's role in presidential elections, Supreme Court rulings, Senate filibusters, abstract art, subversive poetry, circus sideshows, criminal investigations, mental-health diagnoses, and much more, this surprising volume reveals a rich and colorful story that has never been told-until now.

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About the Author

Ammon Shea is the author of two previous books on obscure words, Depraved English and Insulting English (written with Peter Novobatzky). He read his first dictionary, Merriam Webster’s Second International, ten years ago, and followed it up with the sequel, Webster’s Third International. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Feel Like a Nerd, but I'm Loving this Book! Dec 15 2010
By Robert Cowper - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I also purchased Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages and haven't gotten too far into that because I can't put down The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads.

I usually enjoy books like this that, in the grand scheme of life, are useless but really are interesting because they challenge you to learn about things you normally hear nothing about.

Most interesting to me as I started to read the book is that in 2010, not everyone even uses the phone book anymore. I honestly cannot remember the last time 1) we had a phone book delivered, 2) the last time I reached for the old one. I almost felt a nostalgic, "I better read about it now before everybody forgets" draw to the book.

The invention of the phone and how it became a part of our every day life has always interested me, and this book gives some good insight into the invention of the actual device and how that gave importance to the phone book and other directories. The stories of the first phone books (didn't even have phone numbers!), to the president having to step out of his office to make calls, to the handwritten Chinatown phone books in San Francisco are all highly entertaining to me. I'm a trivia nut (every Wednesday night!) so maybe these stories are superfluous to the average Joe, but for me they really struck a chord.

This book will not be for everybody. Be forewarned. I would pick it up at a store and peruse the first 10 pages or so (as I did) or download a trial on your Kindle before purchasing. If it grabs you in the first 10 pages, dive headlong. It's a quick read and you'll find yourself struggling to put it down before bed.

EDIT: As you continue through the book, the format seems to slightly change. The later chapters feature much shorter anecdotes and it seems more like a collection of separate essays that don't necessarily flow from one to another. Because of this, I've changed from 5 stars to 4.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I'm breaking my personal rule to write this review Nov. 18 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on
I have a rule not to write reviews on Amazon of books I haven't bought on Amazon. But this book (which I checked out at the library) is so special that I am duty-bound to get the word out.

What I like best about Ammon Shea's "The Phone Book" is the meandering. When I walk, I like to poke around and detour to new and fascinating places. "The Phone Book" also does this. Ammon Shea not only gives us a history of the phone book, but meanders into places such as Huey Long's roquefort cheese salad dressing (which he used in a filibuster), the spectacular stench of the garbage in front of a New York City A&P during the 1975 garbage collectors' strike, and the role of cuttlefish ink in creating a Chinese-language phone book.

Most of you have a phone book in your home. Pick it up and read it with fresh eyes (and, better yet, try to find old phone books). You'll find an eternity of stories inside.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ammon Shea does it again... Nov. 12 2010
By Richard Cumming - Published on
Ammon Shea is a true Renaissance man. He read the entire unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and lived to write about it. Now he has directed his steadfast and sleuthing nature to the phone book, that once ubiquitous tome that now moulders unused and uncared for in plastic bags at the end of many suburban driveways.

So what happened? 90% of Americans use cell phones. Phone books contain some mobile phone numbers but in general they have become mere vehicles for Yellow Page advertising. Cell phones are killing the phone book. But Shea was undeterred by any of that. He dug right in and found out lots of amazing things. I'll share one with you: "Hello." We say "Hello" because when phones first came into steady use nobody knew what to say when answering them. "Hello" was the suggested word found in the phone book and "Hello" went on to become a standard greeting in many other venues.

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I didn't know what to expect..... Dec 19 2010
By Elaine McFarland - Published on
I have to admit that when I opened the covers of this book, I was totally unprepared for what I found....a complete history of not only the telephone but other early communication devices, as well. And once the telephone was commonplace (or not), the need to know how to get in touch with others who also have the device was an issue. I was enamored with how the telephone book came about in various locales, how they were constructed and printed. It had never occurred to me that the size of type would be an issue let alone how many columns on a page were contemplated. And the type of ink that was used and why.

I found this book absolutely fascinating. It is full of trivia that I never would have cared about in the past. I now spout off to friends about the little known facts I gleaned from Shea's collection of facts. It is well worth the read, if not to the very last page, at least two-thirds of the way through. By then, you have it all. If you are into obscure subjects, I highly recommend reading this book.
4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A book about a book Oct. 18 2010
By wogan - Published on
This book about the phone book can be strangely fascinating at times. There are interesting facts here, that those of us of a certain age will say "oh yes" - you remember when you asked an operator for the number or even the person if you lived in small communities. It is not just about the phone book, but also goes into the invention of the phone - the question of who really invented it, even the history of the telegraph and early mail systems. It does seem at times as if the author is reaching for information to fill up his pages.

There have been observations about the phone book being read into the Congressional Record during filibusters. Shea,investigating into absolutely everything he can find out about the phone book even reads the Congressional Record and cannot find any evidence of any recitation of the phone book
The pages that seem to be most interesting are comparisons of the yellow pages and its' history. Some of the changes between 1979 and today are telling: 71/2 pages of booksellers in 1979 versus 2 today. There seems to be a lot of concern about what happened to old phone books, with Shea almost equating them to discarded books.
This was an interesting concept, it grows tired in places, but those who have an interest in recent history, communications or just wish to add to their font of information would enjoy it.

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