Our Reading Lives

When Living it Up Meant Looking it Up: An Ode to My Reference Books of Yore

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

If you began life connected to the internet, you may not even be aware of some of the books that were part of everyday life for some of us old folks. And while I think nostalgia can be a dangerous impulse, I’m going to indulge in a bit of it. I enjoy thinking fondly of some of the books I relied on before I had a whole computer in my pocket. Most of these categories of books are still available in updated to those who want to use them. But I personally don’t keep updated copies on hand the way I used to.

It’s fun to marvel at the ways we used to get things done. I took entire trips to other countries without being able to search on my phone for train schedules, restaurants, concert dates, anything??? I don’t think the old days were better. They were arduous, less spontaneous, and full of all sorts of mix-ups.

Case in point: I once agreed to meet someone at a coffee shop in New York before the ballet (the tickets were paper and she had both). She told me the street/avenue intersection of the shop (no Google maps). I went to the coffee shop on the street, while she went to the coffee shop on the avenue (no calling or texting to clear this up). Eventually we both got tired of waiting for the other and proceeded directly to the concert hall. Luckily we bumped into each other! It’s a cute story but I will be sticking to my smart-phone.

So let’s take a stroll down memory lane. I’ll stop among the reference books that used to help me live it up.

The Phone Book/Yellow Pages

Sure, the phone book (a.k.a. the White Pages, so called for the literal white pages) was how we found our friends’ phone numbers before we had them memorized. And the Yellow Pages were where you turned when you needed to find a tree doctor or a locksmith. But these references also provided invaluable information when you were someplace new. I think of when my family traveled, and we’d turn to the Yellow Pages to find a pizza place that would deliver to our little roadside motel room. Or before streaming music was a thing, we’d look for the record stores in a new city because my brother was always after vinyl or rare bootleg recordings of his favorite bands. As a person with lots of interests even as a kid, I never failed to look through a motel room’s Yellow Pages. I had to know about the book stores and the craft stores, and what if there was a rock shop??

The Facebook

Because of the eponymous social network’s dominance on the internet, I can’t tell if colleges still print bound books of incoming students’ names and faces (I sincerely doubt it). But in my day, when you locked eyes with that cutie in the laundry room, you had to scour the pages of the facebook to see if you could match a name to that face. I did not submit my information to my college’s facebook, because I didn’t know what it was. Honestly, I missed out. There was something hopeful, maybe even a little wholesome, in giving your photo and name to your fellow students, with the underlying idea, find me. Meet me. Know me. I think that’s worth remembering, considering how the concept got so distorted and corrupted in its electronic form.

Not For Tourists Guide and the London A-Z

For tourists, there were cumbersome folding city and transit maps. Poster-sized documents people pulled from their pockets and bags to advertise, I’m not from here. For New Yorkers, there is the Not for Tourists book. It’s a pocket-size book that breaks the megalopolis into hundreds of tiny, detailed maps. I was never without mine. I consulted it to find people’s apartments, restaurants, and art galleries, plus the transit stops closest to all of them. Similarly, when I took my pre–cell phone trip to the UK, my great aunt handed me her London A-Z so my friend and I could find that little pub in North London where the Beatles tribute band was playing, according to the Time Out magazine she also gave us. These were the books that made me less afraid to go off the beaten path.

Road Atlases

My mom and I drove from New York to San Francisco, largely off of interstate highways once we got to Nebraska. We went to all sorts of goofy places like Carhenge and Deadwood, South Dakota. And we did this all with paper maps!? Like, how? I guess it’s advisable to keep a road atlas in a car in case everyone loses phone signal or you travel back in time or whatever. But could you use one? I’m just going to assume it’s like riding a bicycle and go on living my life.

Zagat Guides

Back to New York for a minute. I used to consult my roommate’s Zagat if I was trying to find a restaurant in a certain neighborhood. And I remember it would provide a rating for ambiance, which I found hilarious. Some of my favorite restaurants have all the ambiance of a locker room. But it still feels great to eat there because you’re sure they can keep the place clean with a simple power wash. Perhaps needless to say, I did not really make enough money while I lived in New York to dine at the kinds of establishments Zagat was rating.

Browsable Books: the World Atlas and the Guinness World Records Book

I’m a bit of a trivia buff as an adult. I think it’s because before there were Wikipedia rabbit holes to fall down, there were books like world atlases and Guinness World Records books to get lost in. While I was certainly a kid who was in search of stories, I was also in search of FACTS. Nowadays I’m an avid daily player of Worldle (like Wordle but you name countries by seeing their shape). And I was extremely proud of getting Nauru on my first guess. I can thank that atlas I thumbed through all those mornings in middle school while boning up for the Geography Bee.

Books I Don’t Ever Want to Give Up

I haven’t used any of the above books in about two decades. But I certainly have not given up all my reference books. I still love a good nature guide. I haven’t found anything digital that can replicate the experience of flipping back and forth between pages to help tell one bird or plant from another. And I’m still analog when it comes to my calendar/planner and my address book. That’s just what works for my brain. So where are you on the spectrum of full luddite to digital wizard? And what are the reference books you’re feeling nostalgic for? Rhyming dictionaries? Almanacs? Logarithm tables? If knowledge is power, these were the texts that made life a little more magical.