Ammon Shea Is Not In the Phone Book, But He Read It, Cover to Cover

by Diane Leach

1 February 2011


"I have never been put off by the smell of a book."

PM: What do you think of texting, tweeting and their effects on how we use language? (Not the two of us. I mean everyone else. I neither text nor tweet.)  I noticed news coverage of the Tyler Clementi story blamed what happened on a generation of people desensitized by these technologies. Do you agree that texting and tweeting, rather than face-to-face communication, harm empathy?  Or was this a case where vilifying technology provided a neat explanation of a crime with a heartbreaking outcome?

AS: I myself do not text or tweet, but I do not see it having the dire effect on language that people seem to think. People have been saying that the English language has been going to hell in a linguistic handbasket for hundreds of years now, and I think if that were indeed the case, we would have arrived there already—hell’s not that far away. David Crystal, Danah Boyd, and Naomi Baron (among others) have examined to what extent texting is changing our language, and the general feeling seems to be that it isn’t really changing much about it at all. But saying that texting is not dramatically changing the form of English is not quite the same as asking whether the internet and its technology are changing the way that we communicate with each other. And I do think that people are far less empathetic than they would be in face to face conversation, but I believe that this is due to the putative anonymity, an anonymity that is provided by technology.”

PM: You seem to have a synesthaesthic relationship to books. In both Reading the OED and The Phone Book you mention needing to smell a book. In The Phone Book,  you write you prefer the feel of paper in your hands. Have you ever handled a book whose smell or paper put you off?  (A romance novel, for instance, or anything purportedly written by Newt Gingrich?)

AS: I have never been put off by the smell of a book.

PM: Do you agree with S.I. Hayakawa about telephone numbers and the decline of memory?  The context has changed—he was railing against the switch from exchanges to full phone numbers, whereas now it’s the telephone’s automatic memory function. I find I am alone amongst my acquaintances in my ability to recall both emails and phone numbers.

AS: I thought it odd that S.I Hayakawa was so convinced that taking away the two letter prefixes on telephone numbers would destroy our capacity for memory—it seems more difficult to me to remember a seven-digit number than it would be to remember a common word and a five digit one. (Reviewer’s note: phone numbers originally had “exchanges:” one called the operator and gave her the number, for example, “Pennsylvania 6-5000.)  I think that particular change helped memory building. We certainly seem less able to remember telephone number now, at least I find that I am. I can still remember the phone numbers my three best friends had when we were in high school, more than 20 years ago, and I cannot remember the phone numbers they have now.

PM: During your years as a furniture mover (I am hoping you’ve been able to leave this gruelling occupation and write full-time), did you employ a different vocabulary with your coworkers than the one you used with Alix? (Shea’s wife)  Or did you simply speak with the understanding you would teased, misunderstood, or both?  (Or maybe your coworkers were all people like you—highly educated but in need of work that did not employ that education. I don’t mean to imply furniture movers are inherently stupid.)

AS: I’ve never spoken to anyone with the same vocabulary that I use with my wife; in part because she is a lexicographer, and in part because we have a shared history, not only of events, but of words. But I think we all code-switch in our lives, and I’m no exception to this. So no - I did not use big words with my fellow movers.

PM: Finally, apart from the OED, who are some of your favorite authors?  Favorite books?

AS: Anne Fadiman and her father Clifton are two of my favorite writers—I would say that anything either of them has written counts as a favorite book. I’ve been a fan of the naturalist and memoirist Gerald Durrell since I was very young, and continue to be. There’s a Czech writer named Bohumil Hrabal who never fails to delight me—his tiny book, Too Loud a Solitude, is the most beauty I’ve ever found in fewer than 100 pages.” 

A few words on The Phone Book. Shea suggests you one read one. Even better, try and get your hands on a phone book from your childhood. (Granted, this is a challenge to those of us now far from our birthplaces.)  Reading the phone books of your childhood is certain to produce a Proustian rush of memories. Reading the current phone book will not be as moving, for the thing is crammed with advertisements for doctors, lawyers (who were banned from advertising in the phone book until 1977), and carpet cleaners. Consider Shea’s observations about phone numbers: some carry great cache, such as the New York City area code 212, or, where I live, 510 (there is even slang for this: “I live in the 510.”). He describes the stunningly complex San Francisco Chinatown phone book, for years meticulously handwritten in Chinese characters, which Chinese operates then memorized. Finally, for all of us who hate cell phones, there is the wondrous Finnish Cell Phone Throwing event, a yearly gathering anyone may participate in.

The phone book, and by extension (no pun intended) the telephone, are artifacts of American history, and may be read that way. And though the phone book is indeed a book everyone owns but never reads, it remains a critical item. Without writers like Ammon Shea, we would continue to take the phone book for granted, a flimsy, ultimately disposable collection of pages meriting a closer look. 

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//Mixed media