Thursday 21 June 2018

Do you have an address book? No, not a 'Contacts' app. A real papery tabbed edge book?

Hello hello. 

Considering I haven't posted here in months the topic of this post is pretty appropriate. It's about communication. 

(By the way, I may not be here very often, but you can find me most days over on Instagram @withjuliekirk).

I'm sharing today something I wrote a few years ago - all about the role of the humble address book in our digital age - which first appeared in print in the ‘Pretty Nostalgic’ 2016 Yearbook.  And I reckoned that summertime - the time of souvenir postcards and 'Wish You Were Here', was a good time of year to bring up this subject with you ... so, tell me ... do you have an address book?

Addressing Life by Julie Kirk 

Do you have an address book?

I’m not talking here about the contacts in your email or an app on your phone. I mean a real address book. Old fashioned even. One made from paper with A-Z tabs along the edge. One which is there, on hand, to easily refer to whenever you feel the need to reach out to someone?

Perhaps you’ve never given them much thought, they’re just something you keep in a drawer most of the year, yet the average address book is not only a practical document containing information on other people it's also a chapter in the book about you.

Because if, as Shakespeare proposed [and goodness knows I’m not about to quibble with the Bard!] ‘all the world’s a stage’ and all the men and women merely players who have their exits and their entrances, then the humble address book is surely the 'Dramatis Personae' of our lives:
  • It's the cast of characters who have made an appearance on our personal stage; 
  • a platform featuring everyone from those with long standing starring roles in our biopic, down to the bit part actors who, like a character from Game of Thrones, we assume will be there forever but, in reality, don’t make it past Season One! 
  • And if you’ve been keeping an address book since you were a child then you’ll even have the cast list to the prequel in there! 
Until very recently I didn’t have an address book, or at least not one that I’d updated in the last decade. I’d grown used to storing addresses here, there, and everywhere from the back of a journal to the back of my head and at the bottom of my inbox. And yet I had a growing sense that I really ought to start keeping one again. After all I use pen and paper to house other things I want to store away for future reflection: ideas, lists, moments and memories; but I wasn’t doing the same for important things like addresses, phone numbers and dates.

Then idea of getting organised with a humble address book started to feel more appealing when I was planning my holiday last summer and I decided that, this time round, I’d connect with friends and family via the retro route: with a postcard. The scene I pictured, of writing out my ‘Wish You Were Here’s on a sunny balcony, was far more romantic without a contacts list open on a laptop screen in the background so in preparation I searched through emails for addresses to print off and scribbled down others in my travel journal. And I realised just how much simpler the whole endeavour would’ve been if I’d just had a straightforward, low-fi, address book to take with me.

So what happened to keeping the cast list of my life up-to-date?

All of this made me wonder why I didn’t already have an address book filled with those who’ve played supporting roles on my life’s stage; but it only took a brief flip through the one I’d abandoned to find the answer: the internet!

The most recent entries were from years ago including old university friends and even my boyfriend at the time; and the former I’m no longer in contact with while the latter’s home address has become much easier to remember since it became the same as mine when we bought a house together over a decade ago!

And it’s surely no coincidence that I stopped updating my book around the turn of the century; the same time that, like many of us, I began communicating via email and mobile phones. New technologies which not only offered alternative places to store people’s contact details but which gradually eroded the need to know someone’s street address in the first place. After all how many of us have reduced the number of physical greetings cards we send since Facebook made it so easy to leave a message on someone’s virtual doormat instead? Where we don’t even need to note down the date on which to leave the message as we’re reminded it’s someone’s birthday as soon as we log on!

Now, I’m no Luddite, I adore the wider world of friendship and opportunities the internet has opened up for us and many of my close friends are those I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting in ‘real life’ as yet. But if, like me, you enjoy playing a part in maintaining written communication in an increasingly digital age then together, between us, back-and-forth, we’re going to have to make sure that while so much is being sent to ‘the cloud’ we’re also sending tokens through the street, the post bag and the letterbox. And to achieve this then an up-to-date address book is going to be as vital as ever!

But wait … reports of the death of the address book have been greatly exaggerated!

Once I’d realised how much I’d neglected my own address book I started asking around for other peoples’ postal experiences. Many my age and older have grown up seeing a parent refer to an address book, a repository of family information, if only at Christmastime when writing out cards. And many of us with early stationery-addiction tendencies will have also kept our own even if it only contained addresses of the school friends we saw every day anyway or of pen pals and fan clubs. [Remember writing to fan clubs and sending postal order to pay for memorabilia? Now there’s a blast from the postal past!] 

We’re of a generation who became accustomed to there being one place in which we’d find the details we needed to write to someone, even it if was only when we felt a pressing need to swap some stickers!

So I did a little bit of research [ironically using the same instant response social media that’s had its impact on slow mail] and I learned that not only is the humble address book alive and kicking in the digital age, it’s actually being cherished by many as a vital document of their personal and their family’s history.

Two key themes recurred throughout people’s responses:
  1.  The first was that many of those address book still in use had been in their owner’s lives for so long that they were now falling apart
  2. Meanwhile the second was that, despite this fact, the sentimental attachment they’d developed for these notes about familiar characters meant they wouldn’t dream of ever getting rid of it! 
Descriptions such as “old and tattered” “battered”, “worn” and “falling apart” were frequently used by people who often admitted to having had their book for over 20 years. No doubt people will have been using those books since a new era in their lives was marked out by the buying of a first home, or getting married; that time in our adult lives when the responsibility for fostering the bonds between us and our life’s cast members shifts from our parents over to us. A time when we take on the role of keeper of the contacts!

“I’ve kept every one I’ve ever had”. 
But when those much referred to books were filled, what then? People told me that when dilapidation or lack of space dictated a new one must be bought, they still “couldn’t bear to part” with the original, stating they would be “lost without it”. It was almost as if throwing away an address book would be in many ways akin to throwing away family photographs i.e unthinkable, out of the question.

Because when we’re talking about something containing details from our long distant past, those addresses with rhythms so familiar on the tongue and the names so evocative of good times then we’re not just talking about a book that keeps us organised, we’re talking about a book that keep people and places and memories.

Unlike many of the other office supplies you might have laying around at home an address book is a living breathing family document that can elicit tender emotions. [I don’t know if anyone ever shed a sentimental, nostalgic, tear over a ring binder or box file, but address books certainly have that power!] 

It’s like Shakespeare said, on our stage people make “entrances and exits” and many people use their address books to note down names of new characters, spouses and children, who enter stage left as a family expands. 

Conversely there’s the ache of leafing through the pages and finding those who've exited the stage for good.
  • “The sad thing is” said one respondent “the people who are crossed out as they have passed away” while another told of how she’d never part with hers as it contained “the addresses of grandparents and others who are not with us any more”. 
And in my own book I found the address of a grandparent crossed out with a poignant final address, of a care home, written beneath. 

It was then I fully understood that address books are seemingly mundane work-a-day items ...
  • Until you begin to reflect on all those lives you’ve pinned down between its covers. 
  • Until it comes to crossing out an old address that had sentimental value to you, or the name of a friend from who you've moved on, or of a family member who's sadly no longer home. 
  • Until you find that you can't throw it, along with all those memories of people and places and moments, away. 
It’s only then that this underrated book makes known its deeper meaning.

A new tradition?

Now that I have a fresh new address book in which to restart recording the cast list of my life I won’t swear to never again rely on the quick search facility in my email to find an address, and I’ll certainly continue to keep mobile phone numbers safely tucked away on my SIM card; it’s just that I now have a back up.

In an increasingly digital world we can still make good use of paper and pen [or pencil for those among us who prefer erasing to the horrors of crossing out!] to store those more recent communication methods such as email and blog addresses, mobile phone numbers and websites. Because a tangible ‘real’ address book won’t crash on you, or become corrupted or, like our much relied upon, but ultimately vulnerable smart phones, it won’t be rendered useless after being accidentally dropped into a toilet bowl! And while I’m not saying it would be a pure joy to flip through those soggy pages after rescuing it from the watery deep, you would at least still be able to flip through it if you needed to look up Aunty Mary’s land line number in a hurry!

But not only is maintaining an address book a practical defence against third party damage, theft and general clumsiness, it’s a back up of our more personal memories too. As we live out our stories on life’s stage the address book is a means for us to reflect on all those who we’ve co-starred alongside already and to keep track of the cast of characters who will populate all the new chapters and scenes still waiting to be written. 

So perhaps it’s time we started a new tradition. 

Why don’t we start gifting young people their first paper address book when they turn 18, with an accompanying note to share why we believe, they’ll enjoy leafing back through it one day. [Although we might have to do some serious explaining to true ‘digital natives’ who’ve only ever known communication through Face Timing and Snap Chatting!] We’d be setting them up with a simple means of preserving memories of those characters who’ll inevitably drift in and out of their life story and the locations in which they were set.

Of course, if you don’t have one already, then give yourself the gift of an address book and start making documenting your own supporting cast. But if you do, especially if it’s one you’ve been neglecting while you’ve been busy tweeting and writing on people’s virtual ‘walls’, then why not open it up today and indulge in a few re-runs; a few episodes from your life, complete with that familiar cast of characters who’ve played a role on your own life’s stage. 


Before I go I want to thank all of those who contributed to my research on the topic! Thank you for sharing your own address book tales, you inspired me to write a full  feature from what began as the flimsiest of thoughts. As ever ... I learned that there is always more than meets the eye, and that sometimes the most simple questions reveal the deepest, truest, eccentricities that make us human. 

And please ... do drop me a line (here or via Instagram) about your own address book habits. Or any thoughts you have about the subject. 

And, if you do use both a papery address book AND Instagram, then do share a photo of yours!!! 
  •  Use the hashtag #myrealaddressbook
  • And tag me @withjuliekirk so I can see it and the inevitable comments your followers leave! (because, as I've learned from experience, you only need to mention address books and people start telling you about theirs!)
Julie x

(p.s: bundles of vintage postcards are now available in my Etsy store).