Robert Benchley: The Most Popular Book Of The Month

[ In Of All Things, Robert Benchley includes a review of the phone book in a mode of deliberate misunderstanding that’s at least still current. Benchley though goes on at greater length with deeper thought than most people writing this sort of piece do, which is one of the things which made Robert Benchley turn out to be Robert Benchley, and includes one of his less-common but still popular pithy quotes. As he predicted elsewhere, though, the quote gets better if you take more than the single sentence from its paragraph. I confess also not being sure just what’s meant by “clb bdg stbls”. ]

New York City (including all Boroughs) Telephone Directory— N. Y. Telephone Co., N. Y. 1920. 8vo. 1208 pp.

IN picking up this new edition of a popular favorite, the reviewer finds himself confronted by a nice problem in literary ethics. The reader must guess what it is.

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know. This feeling is made poignant, to the point of becoming an obsession, by a careful reading of the present volume.

We are herein presented to some five hundred thousand characters, each one deftly drawn in a line or two of agate type, each one standing out from the rest in bold relief. It is hard to tell which one is the most lovable. In one mood we should say W. S. Custard of Minnieford Ave. In another, more susceptible frame of mind, we should stand by the character who opens the book and who first introduces us into this Kingdom of Make-Believe— Mr. V. Aagaard, the old “Impt. & Expt.” How one seems to see hinm, impting and expting all the hot summer day through, year in and year out, always beading the list, but always modest and unassuming, always with a kindly word and a smile for passers-by on Broadway!

It is perhaps inaccurate to say that V. Aagaard introduces us to the book. He is the first flesh-and-blood human being with whom the reader comes in contact, but the initial place in the line should technically go to the A. & A. A. Excelsior Co. Having given credit where credit is due, however, let us express our personal opinion that this name is a mere trick, designed to crowd out all other competitors in the field for the honor of being in the premiere position, for it must be obvious to any one with any perception at all that the name doesn’t make sense. No firm could be named the A. & A. A. Co., and the author of the telephone directory might better have saved his jokes until the body of the book. After all, Gelett Burgess does that sort of thing much better than any one else could hope to.

But, beginning with V. Aagaard and continuing through to Mrs. L. Zyfers of Yettman Ave., the reader is constantly aware of the fact that here are real people, living in a real city, and that they represent a problem which must be faced.

Sharp as we find the character etching in the book, the action, written and implied, is even more remarkable. Let us, for instance, take Mr. Saml Dreylinger, whose business is “Furn Reprg,” or Peter Shalijian, who does “pmphlt bindg.” Into whose experience do these descriptions not fit? The author need only mention a man bindg pmphlts to bring back a flood of memories to each and every one of us —– perhaps our old home town in New England where bindg pmphlts was almost a rite during the long winter months, as well as a social function of no mean proportions. It is the ability to suggest, to insinuate, these automatic memories on the part of the reader without the use of extra words that makes the author of this work so worthy of the name of craftsman in the literary annals of the day.

Perhaps most deft of all is the little picture that is made of Louise Winkler, who is the village “sclp spclst.” One does not have to know niuch medieval history to remember the position that the sclp spclst used to hold in the community during the Wars of the Roses. Or during Shay’s Rebellion, for that matter. In those days, to be a sclp spclst was as important a post as that of “clb bdg stbls” (now done for New York City by Mr. Graham). People came from miles around to consult with the local sclp spclst on matters pertaining not only to sclps but to knt gds and wr whls, both of which departments of our daily life have now been delegated to separate agencies. Then gradually, with the growth of the trade guild movement, there came the Era of Specialization in Industry, and the high offices of the sclp spclst were dissipated among other trades, until only that coming strictly under the head of sclp spelzng remained. To this estate has Miss Winkler come, and in that part of the book which deals with her and her work, we have, as it were, a little epic on the mutability of human endeavor. It is all too short, however, and we are soon thereafter plunged into the dreary round of expting and impting, this time through a character called J. Wubbe, who is interesting only in so far as he is associated with M. Wrubel and A. N. Wubbenhorst, all of whom come together at the bottom of the column.

The plot, in spite of whatever virtues may accrue to it from the acid delineation of the characters and the vivid action pictures, is the weakest part of the work. It lacks coherence. It lacks stability.

Perhaps this is because of the nature of the book itself. Perhaps it is because the author knew too well his Dunsany. Or his Wells. Or his Bradstreet. But it is the opinion of the present reviewer that the weakness of plot is due to the great number of characters which clutter up the pages. The Russian school is responsible for this. We see here the logical result of a sedulous aping of those writers such as Tolstoi, Andreief, Turgenief, Dostoiefsky, or even Pushkin, whose metier it was to fill the pages of their books with an inordinate number of characters, many of whom the reader was to encounter but once, let us say, on the Nevsky Frospekt or in the Smolny Institute, but all of whom added their peculiar names (we believe that we will not offend when we refer to Russian names as “peculiar”) to the general confusion of the whole.

In practice, the book is not flawless. There are five hundred thousand names, each with a corresponding telephone number. But, through some error in editing, the numbers are all wrong. Proof of this may be had by the simple expedient of calling up any one of the subscribers, using the number assigned by the author to that name. (Any name will do—– let us say Nicholas Wimpie– Harlem 2131.)
If the call is put in bright and early in the morning, the report will come over the wire just as the lights are going on for evening of the same day that “Harlem 2131 does not answer.” The other numbers are invariably equally unproductive of results. The conclusion is obvious.

Aside from this point the book is a success.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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