Gone Tomorrow

Our favorite standbys won’t be around for long.

I miss the phone book. A lot. I realize this makes me sound like Andy Rooney, who proclaimed everything was better the way it used to be, but I am who I am. Old—not Andy Rooney old, at the time of his death, but up there. Set in my ways. Resistant to change. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept two phone books—the white and yellow pages—in my bottom desk drawer, the one deep enough to accommodate the weight without rolling off its hinges.

When you needed a government listing, you flipped to the blue pages. Somebody’s residence line? Easy: normal white-page listings. Even the address was present, and if a ZIP code was required, no problem: right there between the calendar and the instructions for emergency calling. And then, poof! Phone books were obsolete, made fun of by young people like the lazy teenager Jeremy in the comic strip Zits, who, when asked by his dad if he’d seen the white pages, answered, “The what?” This prompted the father to explain, “You know, the phone book,” encouraging the kid’s further response: “Oh yeah, let’s see … have you looked in my high chair seat, because that’s the last time I remember using it.”

Now we are left to consult the Internet for phone listings. Websites such as white pages.com sometimes invite us to join something, which I resist, or they give us the age of the person in question and links to their Twitter account. This is too much information. All I want is the phone number for their land line. Remember those?

Last fall, my home unexpectedly lost power while I was blow-drying my hair. This was not acceptable, and I found myself scrounging around in the dark in search of my 2007 phone book, the last good one they made, to find IPL’s emergency number. I would have looked it up on the computer, but the battery was dead, and, well, you can figure out the rest. I needed electricity, and I needed it now.

I’m afraid pretty soon there won’t be printed dictionaries, either, and I’ll have to rely on my computer for spellings and definitions. Google takes time. In a Word document, spell-check misses stuff, such as “kerfuffle” and “suss,” two of my favorite words. Even without electricity (see blow-dryer reference, above), a person could stand by a window or candle and flip through Webster’s in the blink of an eye. I mean, what’s the point of even learning how to alphabetize if there won’t be dictionaries anymore? My 4-year-old granddaughter might as well have skipped the traditional alphabet song and moved directly to Microsoft Office.

We still read the newspaper at our house, but everyone knows where that industry is headed. Frankly, since the elimination of complete TV and movie listings, the paper holds less value for me, although my husband still likes to spread it out across the breakfast table. (Like I said, we’re old.) For obvious reasons, I hope print magazines survive; even considering the vibrancy and interactivity of pages on an iPad, there’s something satisfying about holding the actual publication, the pages all smooth and glossy, the experience cozy and tactile.

Here’s what else I’m worried about: books, at least those made from paper. You know, the kind you snuggle up with, admire the cover, gaze at the author’s photograph. And if eventually there are no books, can libraries be far behind? Right here at home, our library system has faltered along with the economy, resulting in laid-off employees and reduced hours. I haven’t visited a library myself in a while—shame!—but I’ll miss the idea of it. As a kid, it was my favorite place: A girl could perch on bended knee or climb a mounted ladder to select whatever her heart desired. Every time a tempting book was retrieved from the shelf, it was like a cocoon opening.

What bites the dust next? Mail. A recent slate.com article calls the U.S. Postal Service a “hulking, foundering, money-hemorrhaging bureaucracy” that can’t survive as is with its expensive physical and human infrastructure. Eventually, of course, the amount of mail will no longer justify the system that delivers it, and with that will go funny letters from kids at camp, engraved wedding invitations, valentines you pass out in class, get-well cards, stationery. And then, can pens be far behind? When will the madness end?

I’ve always prided myself on decent handwriting: kind of small and hugging the line, decipherable if not highly flourished. Lots of kids today aren’t taught cursive; since all communication can be accomplished via a keyboard, why bother? Well, if you can’t write it, you can’t read it, which means in 20 years or so, the younger generation won’t be able to decode what we leave behind. That’s unsettling. Most of my correspondence these days is conducted through e-mail, something else I predict faces extinction. The system is too slow for our manic socialization, contains too many words for our tiny attention spans, includes too many steps that try our patience.

We’ll live without all this stuff, I’m sure. I mean, who misses hulking sedans and clocks with faces? Chest freezers in the basement, fax machines, disposable cameras? Shoulder pads, phone cords, video cassettes, floppy discs, records: all yesterday’s news that some old-timer in the ’90s bemoaned as gone forever, impossible to replace.

And now, it appears, it’s my turn. Not long ago, my granddaughter called saying she wanted to “face time” me. “What?” I asked, commanding her to repeat her request. Was my phone set up for such activity? What was my wireless password? Is “face time” a verb? Finally, she heaved an exasperated sigh and said, “Okay. Goodbye.” I wish she had just come over. We have fancy new locks that require an instruction manual to operate, but last time I looked, there were still doors, and real people to open them.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.