May 13, 2011

I'm in the book


Soon to be extinct: one of the more hyperbolic compliments engendered by last century’s technology — “I could listen to her read the phonebook….”

The what?

The telephone book has long been employed rhetorically as the exemplar of dullness. And since to enliven such material requires great charisma—or at least an arresting voice—anybody who could claim your attention while reading the phonebook would have it no matter what she was doing.

I spell this out because some of our younger readers won’t remember having used a phone book. They won’t remember that phone books could be found in the phone booths at every major intersection in the city; at the airports, and in the train stations—and in every bar.  In his autobiography, Where the Money Was, famed gentleman bank robber Willie Sutton remembers how the police brutally beat him with a telephone book. Before high chairs, children sat on them.

The book was a democratic touchstone. A 1979 New York magazine article finds George Plimpton, Henny Youngman, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Norman Vincent Peale, CBS chief William S.Paley, Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving, and others in that year’s Manhattan directory, while noting that Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Humphrey Bogart had all been found in earlier editions. (Bogie’s number: MUrray Hill 7595. When I ended up in New York in 1989 I was thrilled to find Walter Abish in the phonebook. I didn’t call him.)

In a well-known case, the Supreme Court identified two constituents of the phonebook’s dullness: it’s unembellished factualness and its absence of imagination. In a show of unanimity that is now rare, the court ruled, in Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (19991), that the phonebook “does not possess the minimal creative spark required by the Copyright Act and the Constitution.”

“[O]riginality is a constitutionally mandated prerequisite for copyright protection,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (no relation); “The standard of originality is low, but it does exist.”

“[N]o author may copyright facts or ideas. The copyright is limited to those aspects of the work – termed ‘expression’ – that display the stamp of the author’s originality…. there is nothing remotely creative about arranging names alphabetically in a white pages directory.”

Sandra Day might have said: “and not in a yellow pages, either.”

Last fall, Seattle became the first city in the country to license phonebook distributors and to allow residents to “opt-out” of delivery of the “increasingly irrelevant” 7-and-a-half-pound yellow pages (Seattle Post Intelligencer). More than 100,000 directories have already been declined.

Distributors Dex Media West, SuperMedia LLC and the Yellow Pages Association asked for an injunction, claiming that the Seattle law violates their First Amendment rights. On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge James L. Robart denied their request.

According to the Baltimore Sun, “Dex argues that the yellow pages are protected under the First Amendment because the phone books ‘speech is not “purely commercial”.’ The company contends that the books contain valuable public information such as government agency phone number listings and maps, which are protected under the First Amendment.”

I think they may be wrong about those government agency phone numbers. More than that, however, Seattle’s ordinance does not meddle with the publishers’ right to print and to offer its product—but it does prohibit Dex and the others from dumping the book, unwanted, on residents’ doorsteps.

So, enjoy this terrific insult while its meaning can still be deciphered, its totem still recognizable: in a recent issue of The New Republic Christopher Benfey reports witnessing Werner Herzog, hierophant of the “ecstatic truth,” defending his documentary films—alloys of fact and invention—against those who require only “objectivity.” According to Benfey, “Herzog’s anger flashed. ‘There’s a book for people like you,’ he sputtered. ‘It’s called the telephone book. Everything in it is true.'”

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.