Degas On The Phone

FINALLY, THE HUMBLE PHONE BOOK is getting its due. Ammon Shea is quite likely the only person on the planet to take an interest in the one text we all rely on without ever giving it a second’s thought. He has just published The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads. In the great scheme of things, it is a small subject. But not as small as first thought would have it. At the end of the road from the first telephone directory is Facebook. Not to mention Intellius, Spokeo and the avalanche of assaults on our privacy. Nowadays, any stranger at all knows where to find us. And, oddly, we welcome the contact, even if we haven’t a clue who the guy is at the other end of an email.

Shea starts where he should, at the beginning, with the world’s first phone book. Well, not yet a book. In 1878, it was just a single sheet of paper with 50 entries, printed for Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut. You can find a facsimile of it on Most interesting about the sheet is that it contains no phone numbers! Back then, the numbers did not exist. There were so few phones that numbers were not needed. The exchange operator knew who had a phone. There was an intimacy to it that is long gone. [“Good morning, Milly. Could you get Doc Brown on the phone, please? I’m not feeling so well today.”]

Telephone operator, Illinois

The publication of Shea’s book reminds me of a story told about Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who lived through the heady decades of nineteenth century’s Second Industrial Revolution. It was the age of machine tools, the lightbulb, the typewriter, the sewing machine, the daguerrotype, an astonishing variety of things and processes on which our own contemporary affluence depends. But I digress. Back to the telephone.

Degas was a guest at a dinner party held by a wealthy Parisian who was one of the first to sign on to that new communications gadget, the telephone. The host proudly displayed his purchase, explained how it worked and how the bell rings.

Degas reportedly asked: “And when it rings, do you answer it?”

“Oh, but of course,” came the reply.

“How dreadful!” said Degas.

Lovely, acerbic response to the idea of having to obey the command of a mechanical device! If Degas were alive today, do you think he would permit himself to be on Facebook? Would he invite us to follow him on Twitter? Email him our press releases? Would he suffer those artists’ listserves where everyone posts their latest review and the wonder of their latest sale? Would he smile for your videocam? Would he welcome clips of himself at the ballet or in the Cotton Exchange going viral on YouTube? Would he use an iPhone the way he used a camera?

I know, I know. This is as silly a game as that other one: What would Jesus do? Still, I can image Degas with an iPhone because it is a tool. Quite a useful note-taking tool, for sure. But there is a vast difference between technology as a tool and as a platform for self-display. Or an assault on our solitude. I quite like the story of Degas’ disgust at the thought that a ringing phone requires you to answer.

We can let the phone keep ringing until it stops; we can unplug our answering machines. But how do we not answer email? It always gets through. And the guy at the other end knows it.


© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey