Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade



I was hoping that A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade by Steve Penfold would interest me more than it did. Its premise--a book about Christmas with local content--could hardly fail. When I got back from Tristan da Cunha and looked through my library to decide what to read next, I couldn't resist this book, since the Toronto Santa Claus Parade was coming up in three weeks. I'd read it in time for the parade. Yet this history either sped along (I surprised myself how many pages I could get through in such a brief time) or it was a dull plod. The text was swamped with endless endnotes that I soon learned to read at the end of each chapter instead of flipping to the back after encountering each superscript. Rarely did any endnote provide me with further insight or detail. In spite of the speedy page-turning interludes I was never inspired to read this book other than during meal breaks at work or while riding public transit. 

That said, I will rave about what I did like about this book. Black-and-white photos chronicling Eaton's parade history filled its pages, and I when I saw the black square of a photo bleeding through the page I was currently reading, I couldn't wait to finish the page to turn it over and see the snapshot from parade history. And the history was what drove the book. Even a prelude analyzing parade culture in general kept my attention. I could not, however, grasp the cutesy terminology of "the corporate fantastic" and "the civic fantastic" which overexplained each dynamic which kept the various Eaton's Santa Claus Parades alive. The business side to the parades frequently went off-topic and I found the overuse of the terms' "fantastic" in the text to be annoying. Perhaps Penfold was trying to conjure up a sense of whimsy and fun by transferring "the fantastic" to the corporate and civic sides of the parade, but it seemed affected.

I did enjoy Penfold's vast research which involved combing through Toronto archives, Eaton's archives and years and years of newspapers. Every year Eaton's fielded complaints from parade viewers disappointed by the lack of religious imagery. Shouldn't a Christmas parade have at least one religious float? What people didn't realize is that Eaton's didn't start off with a religious parade and gradually drop religious imagery over the years; the parade never had it in the first place. The function of the parade since its beginning in 1905 was to draw public attention to Santa and his trip from the North Pole to Eaton's toy department. It was a commercial endeavour since day one. Nevertheless, Eaton's was prepared for those seeking a more spiritual function: 

"Eaton's planners appear to have dealt with these tensions by avoiding them. In every city and across the decades, the parades were consistently non-religious, apparently by design. In Toronto, [parade producer] Jack Brockie remained steadfastly opposed to addressing the religious basis of the holiday in the parade, despite intermittent public pressure and the company's well-known reverence for its founder's Victorian Methodism. In a typical letter, Mrs William Kingley wrote that the spectacle was wonderful but might recognize 'the true meaning of Christmas' by featuring a float of 'the babe in the manger, the shepherds, and the star.' Eaton's officials always answered such letters politely, but normally pointed correspondents to the company's Nativity Window on Yonge Street. On rare occasions, biblical symbols appeared in the parades, but they were normally recast to highlight colour, character, and even comedy. In 1920, a monkey sat on Noah's Ark 'contentedly smoking a pipe,' while four decades later a float of the same biblical story presented 'a fully stocked menagerie' with Noah in a blue sailor suit being towed by 'two frisky blue whales.' Neither was likely to please a devout Christian."

Decades of the parade changed the way the public reacted to the onset of Christmas. For some, it gave them permission to start planning and decorating. No one could accuse them of starting too early if the parade had already come and gone:

"Finally, Santa in public requires an understanding of the contested and complicated definitions of the Christmas season itself. Almost everyone agreed that 25 December was Christmas Day, but no one seemed sure when the more nebulous Christmas season should begin. The absence of any clear calendrical or official definition, in the end, allowed the Santa Claus parade to define the beginning of the season. By appearing in public space, then, the Eaton's Santa helped to shape public time."

Eaton's took its parade on the road and for decades Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton hosted their own version of the Eaton's parade. Some, like Montreal, even used the Toronto floats. With the advent of television broadcasting in 1952, the parade took on a new focus of corporate branding. With cameras beaming the parade from coast to coast, it was a chance for Eaton's to run an hour-long commercial at the same time. The television era brought the company name to the fore, with floats branded by the Eaton's logo and parade theme names changed:

"Overall themes eventually included the company's name, so that typical 1950s 'Parade of Merry Times' (1957) or 'Santa's Carousel of Color' (1960) gave way to 'At Eaton's Christmas Comes to Life' and 'Let Eaton's Share a Special Moment with You' (1973 and 1974)."

Although professional hosts and news anchors hosted the parade for television, nonetheless, scripts were prepared in advance. It would have been unappealing to the audience--mainly children--for the hosts to reel off a series of statistics about the length of each float or the number of sequins used in princesses' gowns. Thus the writers created the parade scripts with a sense of wide-eyed whimsy so that they could be read straight off the page for their intended childhood audience. The hosts therefore did not have to reinterpret boring statistics into a wondrous story on live television. In addition to these descriptions the writers sprinkled the scripts liberally with Eaton's references. I am glad that Penfold had access to parade producer Jack Brockie's post-mortem parade reviews of the broadcast wherein he "...often complained that commentators didn't follow the script, and (perhaps most disturbingly) forgot to mention Eaton's." 

I attended the final Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, the 77th, on November 1, 1981. I recall that no one I spoke to liked the early parade date, the earliest in the parade's history. I even remember seeing children whose faces still had traces of make-up whiskers and dark noses from their previous night's Halloween costumes. The following year was the first Metro Santa Claus Parade, after Eaton's shocked the nation that August by announcing it was cancelling the 1982 parade as a cost-saving measure. Penfold shared the reasons for the Eaton's parade pullout and the efforts by corporate and civic officials to keep the parade alive. He also had the perspective of economic history to analyze the decline of department store culture in general and how the mismanagement of Eaton's led to its bankruptcy in 1999. I attended this first ever Metro Santa Claus Parade on November 14 at its start on Christie Street. Thankfully the parade has continued every year since Eaton's pulled out, and the successive numbering has reverted to its start in 1905. Thus the parade this year on Sunday, November 19 will be the official 113th annual. 

For a superior visual history of the parade, I recommend the Global Television Production from 2004 "100 Years of the Santa Claus Parade". I watch it every year. Penfold provided a valuable history of the parade if you can withstand the lengthy sociological and economic tangents which detract from the story. The author proved his point about Eaton's in that:

"Eaton's did not invent the Santa Claus parade--there were a few scattered versions in other North American cities before 1905--but it was an important player in their redefinition into a sophisticated form of commercial art and popular culture."

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's on-line catalogue

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women


Readers of a certain age might remember clocks and watches with glowing green dials. The dials were painted with radium, the radioactive element discovered by Marie Curie. We had clocks like this when I was growing up. I have a distinct memory of my mother saying, "The women who worked in the factories where these were made got very sick. They had to put the paintbrushes in their mouths, in order to paint the tiny numbers and dots, and they all got sick, and some died."

I never forgot that -- yet I never heard it mentioned anywhere else. Who were those women? Why were they putting a radioactive substance in their mouths? When I saw a review of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, I knew that someone finally had answered those questions. The story of those women was finally told.

And what a story it is.

The young, working-class women in Orange, New Jersey, and Ottawa, Illinois, who painted radium dials thought they had it made. Not only was the pay better than most of work available to women, but they got to work with radium, the exciting glow-in-the-dark substance that everyone was talking about. When one "girl" got sick and died, a doctor ruled the cause of death was syphilis (despite zero evidence and the impossibility of that claim). Another death was ruled pneumonia (also wrong). But as more and more of the workers became sick -- with horrific and inexplicable symptoms -- the pattern became obvious.

When the watch-painting first began, in the late 1920s, the danger of radioactive substances was still largely unknown. Faced with suspicions as multiple workers became sick, the company commissioned a study... then suppressed the findings.

As the women lost their teeth, suffered broken bones, lost their hair, lost pregnancies, became weak, and died, their employers worked overtime at suppressing the truth, denying responsibility, refusing to pay for medical care, and blaming the workers themselves.

If this story was fiction, the companies' actions would be barely credible; readers would say the author laid it on too thick, making the company out to be monsters. Some of the dirty dealings left me gasping. At one point, the women were all seeing the same doctor. They didn't know that the doctor worked for the company. Then it turned out he wasn't even a doctor! Officially, the women died of radium poisoning. But this book leaves no doubt: these workers were murdered.

Labour laws at the time were in their infancy: if a disease wasn't on a short list of specific conditions, workers had no legal recourse. What's more, even those few conditions were subject to a strict statute of limitations -- for which radium poisoning, by definition, would never qualify.

The media and publicity were much different, too. The two factories in two different states, with workers suffering through the same ordeals, were unknown to each other. When the New Jersey cases finally garnered national and international attention, the workers in the Illinois factory realized they were in the same situation. And when the Illinois women took the company to court, the town turned against them. With the country in the grip of the Great Depression, anyone who could supply jobs was welcome. (This itself is a sad and telling commentary about working class life.)

Sick, disabled, and dying, the women were truly on their own. But they fought back, and they didn't give up. Their fight changed the world. Labour laws changed, scientific and medical knowledge were advanced, and precedence was set for greater corporate accountability.

Fans of Hidden Figures and the less famous but equally amazing Glass Universe will want to read this book. If you enjoy hidden histories, stories of struggle and perseverance, and real-life heroes a la Erin Brockovich and Karen Silkwood, this book is for you.

My only criticism of The Radium Girls is the writing itself. It could have used another round of editing to tighten up excessive detail and delete some unprofessional colloquialisms. Whether anyone who is not a writer or editor will notice, I don't know. Any qualms I have about the language are far outweighed by the riveting story. [This review originally appeared on wmtc.]

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads


Everywhere we look, every available space is filled with advertising. The Toronto skyline is a sea corporate logos. The due-date receipt from my library book features an ad on the back. I once tracked all the ads shown during a major league baseball game -- during play, not between innings -- and the results were startling, even to me. And, of course, our entire experience on the internet -- especially on our personal mobile devices -- is tracked and used by corporations with only our dimmest awareness and nominal consent.

It wasn't always like this. How did we arrive at this current state? The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu answers this question. The answer is fascinating and entertaining, and -- if you dislike the constant and ever-increasing commodification of our lives, as I do -- more than a little frustrating.

In the first part of the book, Wu presents a capsule history of the "attention capture industry" -- what this review in The New York Times adeptly calls "the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness". This begins with the first ads to appear in a daily newspaper, moves through snake-oil salesmen, to the first people to recognize the power of radio to sell products, through sponsored television shows, to ads during shows -- which was shocking and provoked outcry in its day! This section is truly fascinating. Wu is a master at finding sparkling details that make the story come alive. For example, I learned that snake oil, now a generic term for worthless products touted as cures for all ills, takes its name from a product that actually involved snakes. The Attention Merchants is packed with these kinds of tasty nuggets of information.

In the history of attention capture, Wu also includes government propaganda. He looks at how, during the first World War, the British government, joined later by its American counterpart, used mass-media lies to entice young men to all but certain death in the trenches. This segment also analyzes the first modern total information campaign, and the first to harness electronic media for large-scale propaganda, that of one Adolph Hitler. We've all seen footage of the giant Nazi rallies with huge fascist insignias, but I didn't fully realize that Hitler, along with Third Reich propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, was the first to study and analyze attention capture, and to use it on a grand scale.

Another interesting segment is devoted to what Wu calls "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex". For someone like me who doesn't share the mainstream obsession with celebrity -- I don't understand it, even a little -- this was both fascinating and affirming. Wu offers an interesting analysis of Oprah Winfrey's attention methods, which he sees as groundbreaking in a not altogether positive way.

The part of The Attention Merchants that has been the focus of most reviews and interviews is about the price we pay for supposedly free services on the internet. Most of us have heard the phrase, "when a service is free, we're not customers, we're the product" or variations thereof. (Various people have made this public statement at various times, dating back to Richard Serra in 1973.) Wu dissects exactly what that means -- for the tremendous potential of the internet, now tremendously debased and squandered, and for ourselves, with our fractured attention spans, short and ever shorter.

In the book's later chapters, the tone and tenor changes from dispassionate historical analysis to passionate and savaging. The rise of "free" social media, where billions of people willingly submit to having their personal habits mined, tracked, and resold for other people's profits, on a scale never before seen in human history, is not a mixed blessing in Wu's worldview. It's a flat-out evil.

By the time I finished the book, I had challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Because of certain health issues, I struggle with low concentration, so perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me -- or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity.

Wu also points out a massive public pushback, as evidenced by the millions of people willing to pay a monthly fee to enjoy advertising-free viewing through Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and similar services. The cultural phenomenon known as binge-watching is evidence that we can focus our attention for lengthy periods of time, when what we're watching is good enough to warrant it.

Wu writes:
Ultimately, the problem was as old as the original proposition of seizing our attention and putting it to uses not our own. It is a scheme that has been revised and renewed with every new technology, which always gains admittance into our lives under the expectation it will improve them -- and improve them it does, until it acquires motivations of its own, which can only grow and grow. As Oxford ethicist James Williams puts it, "Your goals are things like 'spend more time with the kids,' 'learn to play the zither,' 'lose twenty pounds by summer,' 'finish my degree,' etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like 'Time on Site,' 'Number of Video Views,' 'Number of Pageviews,' and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it."
Wu references William James,
"who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one's life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.
I've added Wu's first book, The Master Switch, to my to-read list. [A version of this review appeared on wmtc.]

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison


I have an abiding interest in prison librarianship, and try to learn about it wherever I can. At any library conference, if there is a session on prison libraries, I attend. I'm always pleased to see how popular and well attended these sessions are.

Perhaps that should not surprise. In a sense, prison libraries epitomize librarian values -- the inherent value of reading, the power of self-education, the importance of finding the right reading material, the solace and companionship that reading can offer, the democratizing and liberating power of the library. And perhaps above all, the desire to bring resources to people who are marginalized and under-served.

Whether I'll ever work as a prison librarian or volunteer in a prison library remains to be seen. Prison libraries have been decimated by austerity budgets, and few people advocate for them.

In recent years a few narrative nonfiction books about prison libraries have been published. I hope to read and review them all.

Mikita Brottman's Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison -- unlike most of the titles in her club's syllabus -- reads lightly and quickly. The reader also learns a bit about literature.

Those are the only positive things I can say about this book.

I don't usually write unfavourable reviews, in acknowledgement of how difficult it is to write a book, and in deference to varying tastes. Every book is not for every reader, and my opinion shouldn't stand in anyone else's way.

Occasionally, though, something must be said.

Brottman ran a book club in a prison in the US state of Maryland. She is not a librarian; she is a scholar and professor of literature. Perhaps this explains my frequent confusion, dismay, incredulity, and sometimes disgust at some of her choices. Librarians are all about matching readers with books. When we run book clubs, the members choose the books -- likely from a list of possible choices, but always with members' full and active participation. Brottman came into the prison with a list of titles.

And what a list it was! First Brottman tells the story of the first time she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a student at Oxford University. She found it indecipherable. Completely unreadable. Only after one of her distinguished professors helped her -- and even then, after several readings -- did she understand and appreciate the book. And yet she chose Heart of Darkness for a group of men with limited reading skills, little reading experience, and no formal education -- and for their first meeting together!

Brottman never explains why she did this. I'm not sure if the reader is meant to laugh with her at her missteps and foibles? I just cringed.

After that disastrous first session, Brottman next assigns Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. This absolutely boggles my mind. Nineteenth-century writing is difficult for many contemporary readers, including avid readers with solid literacy. Why?

The men's reactions to their reading continually confounds and frustrates Brottman. She wants to teach literature as she is accustomed, with a deep analysis of language and themes. But the men view the stories and characters in terms of their own experiences. Like many readers, they expect books to be, in a sense, about themselves -- to offer insight or reflection or lessons. To be, as I frequently hear from teen readers, "relatable". But Brottman wants to teach "the text," as literary scholars are so fond of calling it. She fights a losing battle to try to make the men talk about the book in her own purist terms, repeatedly trying to get them to stop talking about their own lives. Only slowly and partially does she adjust her teaching methods to their needs.

Brottman comes off as spectacularly tone-deaf. When the men react to her book choices with either boredom or confusion, she lectures them. She dismisses their points of view, she makes jokes that mock and offend. She makes the men read Lolita and defends the book's central relationship as a love story! The men recognize Humbert Humbert for what he is -- and she tries to talk them out of it! Did this woman come into a men's prison with so little preparation that she doesn't know the prison status of child sexual abusers? Perhaps, because she also breaks a cardinal rule of all prison volunteering: after the book club ends, she continues her relationship with some of the men on the outside.

Before I read this book, I wondered if it would include some exaggerated claims of how the book club transformed lives. Reading can be a transformative experience, but participation in a book club is not going to repair the conditions or reverse the behaviour that gave rise to the men's incarceration.

I needn't have worried. The Maximum Security Book Club is not about prison life, and it's not about incarcerated men. It's not about the relationships that form through a book club, nor the effects of reading. It's about the author -- her thoughts, her reactions, her knowledge. Although Brottman holds up her working-class upbringing like a trophy for the reader to admire, she still comes off as a privileged white saviour looking for a novel experience at someone else's expense. She's slumming.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their book club experience turned these men off from reading for the rest of their lives. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Make Trouble



Make Trouble is John Waters's commencement address to the graduating class of the Rhode Island School of Design of 2015. This is a slight book--only 71 pages--with minimal text and decorated with illustrations by Eric Hanson. I am a fan of Waters and have read and posted reviews of his books Role Models and Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America however I was not too thrilled with Make Trouble. Maybe it was because I expected more out of a graduation address. Its basic premise was that in order to become successful, you have to make trouble, or as only Waters could say it, "Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully." Waters is never afraid to tell it like it is, and I can hear his ebullience and see his pencil-thin moustache curl into a parenthesis as he tells impressionable twenty-year-olds "And, young adults, maybe today is the day you stop blaming your parents for every problem you've ever had. Whining is never appealing in a college graduate. Yes, it's a drag you were kept locked in a cardboard box under their bed and whipped daily with a car aerial, but it's time to move on. We've all been dealt a hand. Deal with it!"
Waters recounts--briefly, of course--his past subversive successes by having made trouble. About his original film "Hairspray":

"You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America--and nobody seems to notice it's a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. Pink Flamingos was preaching to the converted. But Hairspray is a Trojan horse: it snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing."

I have read all of Waters's books but would not recommend Make Trouble. It is far too short even for a commencement address. You can sit comfortably with it and read it--unrushed--in fifteen minutes.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through The Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created


An interesting collection of make-believe worlds crafted by the minds of some of the globe's greatest writers. It is the kind of book that is filled with surprises. I read the work cover to cover but I can foresee others picking sections willy-nilly and enjoying the work that way.

Literary Wonderlands is organised into five major sections each based on a historical time period beginning with ancient myths and legends and ending with the computer age. Within each section are a range of chapters highlighting an author and one of their works (often mentioning other works by the same author that are related). The works chosen to fill this volume are ones where the author has created an imaginary world. There are famous ones like Tolkien’s Middle Earth and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe. There are also lesser known works for example Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak and Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut. The chapters are short usually only a couple of pages to four pages long. Many of the chapters are illustrated and show either an image of the author or a scene from the work. It is all nicely packaged.

The value of this sort of work is in its readers advisory potential. There are many works and imagined places I had never heard of (Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright comes to mind). I also enjoyed the chapters about the works that I have read like Peake’s Gormenghast books—It is always interesting to read another person’s perspective on a book I like. In summation, I recommend picking this up because you will find something of interest in it, a path that will lead you to another great read.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads


The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads by Ammon Shea was written in 2010 but even at seven years old I take issue with the statement that everyone uses it. Shea should know upfront that I am a rotary-dial-loving non-cellphone-owning telephonophile, yet when I need to look up a number even I look for it on-line. I admit it would be handy to have an up-to-date phone book as I keep all of my directories downstairs in the cupboard above my fridge, yet my computer is upstairs so I always have to go up a flight to make a call when I don't already know the number. However even if I did have a current phone book, it would be murder on my eyes as the size of font has shrunk to minuscule proportions in the last few years. Phone books in my youth also had fewer columns per page and were thus much easier to read.

What I do share with Shea is a love of phone books. As a child I was genuinely excited when the new Toronto and Mississauga-area phone books arrived. I turned over the pages of the massive Toronto directory looking for unusual last names. I still remember a heckuva lot of them, like Ggoome, someone listed with the surname and initial Ee E, and the stalwart listing Q'Part Mrs, whom I actually phoned in order to enquire specifically about her last name. I cannot recall a word of that conversation from forty years ago, yet I addressed her as if her last name was French, hence que - PAR. All the Pizza Pizza franchises used to be listed alphabetically by the street they were on, and every single one of them had the same number, 967-1111. I also remember the Royal Ontario Museum controversy, or should I say, The Royal Ontario Museum controversy, as Canada's preeminent museum was listed in the white pages under T.

Why am I so interested in phone books? I love words, names, lists of words and names, and ordered lists of words and names to be particular. The phone book is a book with my name both figuratively on it as well as literally in it. I started reading The Phone Book on a train ride from Helsinki to Joensuu and finished it two days later on the flight home to Toronto. Shea covered many topics--often, too many--starting with the debate over the true inventor of the telephone. An introduction such as this could be deemed necessary as a lead-in to the main topic at hand, telephone books. But Shea often drifted off-topic, taking up pages discussing the effect of scents on his senses and how synaesthesia draws him to buy books. There was no reason to go on and on about the fetish he has for the smell of books (he denies that it's a fetish, but I am calling a spade a spade here). I got the feeling pretty soon that these tangential topics were merely page fillers for what would have been an otherwise shorter book (202 pages). 

The first phone book was not even a book. It was a list of fifty names published in 1878. In the earliest days of telephones, one didn't need to know any phone numbers, as an operator used to connect callers on a switchboard. In the early twentieth century tests were conducted on phone book layouts to ease as well as accelerate number lookups. Column width, indentation, print size and many other factors were analyzed to produce the most effective print layout. Even as early as the fourth decade of the last century did people look to the phone book for exploitative commercial reasons. Shea wrote of one midwest business that looked to use the Manhattan directory to create its own mailing list:

"Templin [directory supervisor of the New York Telephone Company in the 1930's], not a man to take kindly to such deliberate misuse of his book, flat out refused to assist, saying that he had 'no intention of aiding them in their nefarious schemes.'"

If only we had Russell Templin around today to deal with telemarketers.

The phone book can be blamed for one of the greatest election miscalls in American history. The November 3, 1948 headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, "Dewey Defeats Truman", can blame its own telephone exit polls on the phone book for this inaccurate result:

"In 1948 the telephone was not yet as ubiquitous a household fixture as it is today; it was more an implement owned by the upper class, the members of which greatly favored Dewey. The pollsters took what they thought to be the pulse of the electorate by calling random numbers taken from telephone books across the country. Except that they weren't truly random--as soon as they chose the telephone book, they unwittingly skewed their results in favor of the people who owned telephones and who happened to be more inclined to vote for Dewey."

In addition to the white-paged residential listings of phone books, Shea provided a history of the yellow pages and explained why its pages were traditionally yellow. He compared the Manhattan pages of 1979 to those at the time of writing, thirty years later, and had many interesting observations about the state of technology and how it affects advertising. The yellow pages of Manhattan, keep in mind, so we're not talking about a small rural town, had no listings whatsoever for funeral preplanning in 1979, yet 23 listings in 2009. The yellow pages of 1979 had more than a dozen pages of ads and listings for typewriters, yet in 2009 there was "but a single store that has chosen to run an ad in the small corner of the current telephone directory that deals with typewriters. It reads, 'YES! We still repair IBM Selectric and Wheelwriter Typewriters'--with an enthusiasm that feels born of desperation."

Shea is charming when he takes the reader on a trip down memory lane as he relives his childhood through a copy of a phone book. After having found a directory that was around when he was a boy, Shea lets his fingers go walking through the list of names and he discovers people--and memories--that had been dormant for decades. He can take a different path each time he opens the book, so each trip down memory lane is a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story. He invites the reader to do the same:

"Find an old phone book from some point in your life and take a trip through its pages and your past. Skim the pages or examine them closely. You needn't read it as one reads a book--the plotline is your own, and you can experience it however you prefer."

There are organized groups that wish to ban the phone book on account of its colossal waste of paper and resources. Shea writes about these groups yet offers in defence how profitable it is for the yellow pages to remain in print. As long as it makes money for the publisher and advertisers, we will still have print yellow pages. Offering the public a choice, such as opting in if you wish to receive a phone book, or alternatively opting out if you don't, do not seem to be very effective. Shea provided statistics on municipalities that offered these choices with only minimal percentages taking the opt-out preference.

Shea is a bibliophile at heart who would be a poor second-hand bookseller, as I am afraid he would buy everything everyone brings in to try to sell him. Yet after stating how tragic it is to throw away books, he does admit to a need (however prejudiced) to dispose of books: 

"I am not entirely in favor of abstaining from throwing books away. Indeed, there are many books that I feel deserve nothing more than a quick trip to the trash heap and should very likely have never been published in the first place. Astonishing numbers of new titles are published every year--the figure is estimated at over 250,000 in the United States alone. Surely some of these titles should never have seen the light of day. And yet it still tugs at my heartstrings to see so many telephone books thrown away, often still encased in their cheap plastic wrap, obviously not just unwanted but not even judged worthy of perusal."

What Shea finds so sad is the tendency to throw away old phone books. Even the phone companies encourage this, in order to ensure that their latest editions are available. No one keeps old phone books because they are obsolete within a year, as well as being of exceptional girth. Sadly, Shea found that some libraries even disposed of their old phone book collections because of lack of use. In the end, Shea calls for the continuation of the printed phone book for a reason beyond mere childish sentimentality:

"Whenever there is a discussion, or a debate, about why it is that telephone companies continue to print the white pages, there is invariably mention of the fact that some small portion of the population does not have access to the Internet or that some people who have used the telephone book all their lives just don't understand how to make the transition from newsprint to hyperlink.
"But there will always be some portion of the population that does not keep up with the current technology, whether it is because they are Luddites by choice or because technology has simply passed them by. This in itself is not enough of a reason to insist on continuing to use the white pages.
"It should be enough that some people just prefer to have the feel of paper on their hands when they are reading something. I know I do."

I would gladly take in the latest copy of the local phone directory if the phone company knew that there were still customers who used them.