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

[1 February 2011]

By Diane Leach

In 2008 I stumbled across a book titled Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,739 Pages. The author, Ammon Shea, decided to take his love of dictionaries to a new level. He read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, all 20 volumes, then penned Reading the OED. Erudite, educational, and laugh-out-loud funny, I loved the book so much I did something I rarely do: I sent Ammon Shea a fan email.

Normally the idea of speaking with writers makes me extremely nervous. Writers, after all, are a notoriously moody, unpredictable lot. I’ve always feared loving a book only to meet the writer and find he or she is an egotistical asshole. What with the internet and email, this is far easier to learn than it once was. Arguably, nasty people should be separated from their work: think Ernest Hemingway, a man who made no secret of his Anti-Semitism and obviously had ‘Issues’ with women. Ezra Pound was no prince, either. But they’re dead. Ammon Shea is not.

In my reviewing capacity I’ve had a few authors email me nasty screeds. I’ve also received some lovely notes.  As for Shea, he returned my fan email with a kindly email of his own, so when his latest book, The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads was published this month, I jumped at the chance to interview him.

Shea is a rarity: a true bibliophile, a “collector of words”, (his description), a lover of dictionaries. He is married to Alexandra Horowitz, who was once a lexicographer, but is now at Barnard, using her Ph.D. in Cognitive Science to do research in canine cognition. She, too has a book, titled Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. (See her article in the New Yorker on the weird propensity some people have for making their dogs wear Halloween costumes.)

I was a little intimidated while writing interview questions, feeling rather dwarfed intellectually, but I reminded myself of Mr. Shea’s friendly email, decided he would not accuse me of functional illiteracy or insanity, and emailed him a set of questions.

Before relating our discussion, I admit I asked rather little about The Phone Book. This wasn’t because I disliked the book; I loved it. The problem was I’d finally met somebody who possibly loves books more than I do, and certainly knows more about them. The resulting questions reflected my desire to know his opinion on a wide range of topics bookish. He gamely answered, but admitted “these are not questions I am typically asked.” 

I opened by stating I am language prescriptivist, something Shea professes not to be. That is, I fall into the camp that goes insane when somebody says “irregardless”, while he takes the more sanguine view:

“I do not hold your prescriptivism against you—it is, I should confess, something that I oppose in theory perhaps more than I do in practice. That is to say, I do not question that ‘irregardless’ has the right to exist and is in fact a word, but I do not know anyone who uses it.”

Lucky man.

Shea spent some time in Southern California. He found the citizens ill-educated and hated the place. I, too lived in Southern California and hated it, but felt moved to defend my adopted home of Northern California, where reading books is comparatively common and speakers of grammatically correct English abound:

“Nor do I look askance at the denizens of Northern California,” he said, “my wife and I recently visited her brother in San Francisco, and I was utterly charmed by the city. It is also a pleasure to find someone else who enjoys Fadiman’s writing—I came across her through first reading her father’s book, which are similarly enjoyable (he is the author of what I consider to be the single most charming gustatory bon mot I have ever seen, which is “Cheese is milk’s leap toward immortality”).”

I confess I’ve never read Clifton Fadiman, but his daughter Anne’s works are some of my favorites. Her most well-known title, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her other three books concentrate on the joys of reading, from alphabetizing to essays to the “folding page corner” debate. (I never fold pages. Early in our marriage, my husband and I had a huge fight after he turned a book page down to mark his place. I won the argument, but this is more testimony to his good nature than my point of view.)  Finding a fellow Fadiman Freak was a wonderful treat.

PopMatters: In The Phone Book, you write haven’t had a phone number in your name for years. While I am filled with admiration and envy, I imagine other readers, tethered as they are to their cell phones, will be horrified. While I personally despise cell phones, and can barely operate mine, I keep it for emergencies, and must admit it is a useful implement at rare moments. Why don’t you have a phone number, and how on earth do you get away with it, particularly now, when you have an infant son?

Ammon Shea: I was probably somewhat unclear—at the time of writing I had not had a land line for some years, although we’ve recently got one, since both my wife and I had books coming out, and needed it for interview. The phone is under her name, and I am not listed, nor have I any intention of entering my name in any telephone books to come. I have had a cell phone for a while, and I detest the thing.

PM Amen.

In both Reading the OED and The Phone Book you point out how both words and advertisements are indicative of a culture in time, though in The Phone Book we see how shallow contemporary culture is by the sheer number of ads for things like beauty salons, pizzerias, and carpet cleaning services. You also make mention of glossy catalogs, malls, and the “unnecessary garbage they are trafficking in.”  Given your hatred of consumerism, what’s your strategy for avoiding it?

AS: I can’t say that it requires a great deal of effort. I don’t spend time reining in consumerist impulses—I do buy things, it’s just that the things that I am interested in tend to be not so much in demand, and hence are not part of the advertising world. For instance, I recently purchased a set of books that I’ve been wanting for a while—Keesing’s Contemporary Archives.  It’s a set of news reports collected from a thousand or so world news sources, and I came across a 49 volume set from 1931-2003. Nobody wants these things anymore, and so libraries are divesting themselves of them. They may not matter to most consumers, but they hold great appeal to me. So I would say that I am indeed a consumer, I’m just an idiosyncratic and flawed one.

PM: Your oeuvre thus far covers arcane words and ill-considered books. Yet technology is rapidly eradicating much of what we took for granted as younger readers. You point out that “I’m in the book,” has become a meaningless phrase for an entire generation, who don’t use phone books. Do you think serious lovers of reading paper books are an aging niche?  Do you fear our vanishing entirely?

AS: I do not fear that paper books and the people who love them will vanish entirely. I did once think this, because it seemed that technology would be able to provide a reading experience that was (at least in some ways) so much richer than simple ink, glue, and wood pulp. So I am not pessimistically optimistic, by which I mean that this technology, and the things that it can offer, has been so poorly utilized that it will never displace the book as we know it.”

PM: Continuing in this vein, what do you think of the latest reading-related technology?  I can’t imagine you running out to purchase a Kindle any time soon, but do you see a place for computer readers?  I was completely against them until a friend of mine, a brilliant woman who reads compulsively, told me Kindles are great for long airplane flights. She otherwise prefers paper. Another friend, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, loves her Kindle, as she adores reading but isn’t strong enough to handle hardcover books. Now everything is quite literally at her fingertips. I realize she is an exceptional example, but as somebody who relies on public transit, many are the days I am weighed down by whatever heavy book I’m reading.

AS: I still refuse to buy an e-reader. I prefer shoulder pain.

This relates to my answer if your previous question—I think that the Kindle and its ilk are great examples of an advance that is not being fully taken advantage of. I know very little about them, but the main use of this technology is that they can now fit a very large number of books into a very small space. An example of an exception to this is what Oxford University Press has done with the online version of the OED (disclosure—I work as a consulting editor for OUP). They have an advanced search feature for the dictionary that is splendid—it allows you to not just look up a word as one normally looks it up in the dictionary, but also to find it anywhere in the full text (which now is well over 60 million words). You can decide whether you want to search only through specific parts of the dictionary, if you want to find a word in an etymology, of a word that was used by a particular author. You can look for specific parts of speech, or words that came from one language but not another. You can instantly find all the headwords in the OED that contain the word ‘quixotic’ in their definition (there are 15 of them). I think there are very few imaginative approaches such as this that are being applied to the electronic books that general readers use.

I certainly prefer to read on paper, rather than on a computer, but I noticed something interesting recently on the web site Internet Archive, which is that they frequently provide a number of ways of downloading text, and when they have the option of downloading a book as a color pdf, which manages to fairly accurately reproduce the color of the original paper, and many of the minor flaws and nicks in that paper, it is considerably more enjoyable to read than normal computer text.

"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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