I threw my phone books out the other day. For months they'd sat in a corner of my office, unopened and unused, victims of a world where, with a click of a mouse, I can get anyone's phone number, their educational history and a tour of their street.
Beyond its cockroach squishing properties, the phone book has outlived its usefulness. Yet parting with something as archaic and unwieldy as the telephone directory came with some unexpected nostalgia.
When compared with other anachronisms such as the typewriter or Polaroid camera, the space the phonebook occupies in my cumulative reference library of associations is limited. But as I dropped the volumes into the recycling bin, I felt a little of my life went with them.
It is difficult to comprehend a world without the phone book. How to forget the hours trying to find the number of a teenage crush. And what of those black-and-white scenes of detectives drinking coffee and spending all night calling every "Schultz" in town until the mystery blonde in the negligee picked up the receiver and whispered: "Be careful my husband might be listening". Does Sam Spade googling photos of someone's company fun run carry the same air?
A future without phone books is a radically unfamiliar world. Corrupt policemen will beat suspects with modems, and strongmen in sideshows will tear laptops in half. Interior designers will add "period" touches to the apartments of investment bankers by scattering copies of the Yellow Pages.
Every year the world and I grow a little more unfamiliar. No one sends postcards anymore. Wallets are being replaced by mobile phones with built-in credit cards.
Life before Twitter, cyber bullying or Paris Hilton had something to recommend it, if only that it didn't have any of them.
It was slower, knowledge was more precious for having been hard won, there was no glowing oracle to tell you every answer. If you wanted to find that forgotten high school love, you had to open a book and start turning, one page at a time.
"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers."
~~ Charles W. Eliot, The Happy Life, 1896