phones, ‘phones, and telephones

I enjoyed this article in the New Yorker: “An Elegy for the Landline in Literature.”

I’ve dealt with cell phones in my writing by never writing about them. Poof — they don’t exist. Likewise for computers and the web and so on. It’s not fun, so I’m not doing it.

Sue Grafton, who wrote the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, did the same thing, Every book in the series covered a few months in the detective’s life, and every book took a year to write, so Kinsey — moving into the future much more slowly then the rest of us from her beginning in 1982 — never did make it into the PC era (okay, maybe she did near the end — I confess I never read the last few books).

When my stories were taking place in U-town, it was easy because there were no telephones there at all. What a pleasure for a writer. (Not that I mind cell phones and computers in the real world — quite the opposite — but they’re tedious to write and read about.) 

In the stories I’m writing now, there are telephones (still no computers, though — we’re in a more “civilized” part of the world but even earlier in time), and recently I was doing edits and deciding whether “phone” or “telephone” was more appropriate in a specific sentence. This reminded me of the Philo Vance mysteries, written a century ago, when it was proper to write “phone” with an apostrophe (‘phone) — to acknowledge the elision. And then, much later, “phone” meant telephone, and “cell phone” meant cell phone. And now “phone” means cell phone, and we have to use “landline” for a telephone (or ‘phone).

(This didn’t really happen with email, by the way, much to the disappointment of some. In the early days of the internet, among the cognoscenti, “mail” meant “email” and that other mail was “snail mail.” But people still say “email” for email, and now email itself has become unhip, with all the more modern technology that is coming along.)

I still like writing (and reading) face-to-face conversations. And, as the child of librarians, I like writing about research being done in libraries, with the assistance of librarians, rather than with Google and Wikipedia.

Of course, for a lot of people these days, if you talk about living without all these modern “conveniences,” their response is something along the lines of “How can you people live this way?

From the New Yorker article: “The landline is a source of suspense, of great and small action; it is the noise of the world entering almost supernaturally into a room. In fiction, it is a cherished and endangered device, one full of possibility. It could, after all, be anyone calling.”

And the caller could be trying to reach anyone who lives in that household. I remember once, decades ago, calling my girlfriend and her mother picking up the phone. They had very similar voices, so I chatted along, thinking I was talking to my girlfriend, and her mother chatted along (she had mistaken me for an acquaintance of hers) and I don’t remember exactly how we got out of the conversation once we realized the mistakes we were making, but we managed — somewhat awkwardly, as I recall, but without permanent damage.

In somewhat-unrelated news, I’m slowly catching up with Game of Thrones (backwards, which I’ll write about at some point). It is refreshingly free of telephones (of all kinds). To make my earlier point about face-to-face conversations, I particularly enjoyed this scene, where Jon Snow and Sansa Stark, hoping to get military assistance in retaking their home, meet with the irresistible force and immovable object that is Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island.

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