The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads Paperback – Oct 5 2010
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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 Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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