Thursday, December 02, 2004

Study at the Library of Congress, and ponder Blake, the yellow page market, and your 5th grade teacher in Indonesia (or maybe that's just me)

LOCATION: Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue, SE (Capitol South or Union Station metro stops) EQUIPMENT: Yourself, Library ID card (which you'll need to sign up for the first time you go there; this takes about 45 minutes and requires a government issued ID; ask at the front where to go) OPTIONAL: Memorized passages of Blake

When I was working as a consultant, I did a case on the yellow page directory market. This involved a field trip to the Library of Congress where I gathered a bunch of data on ad sizes by category over time.*

Dear reader, if you are a bookworm, bookeel, bookserpent, if you ever decided as a child you wanted to read every book ever written, if being in the presence of first editions (i.e. physical manifestations of the genius minds of history) catches your breath, if your favorite nook in your college stacks felt like home, if you have been known to lie in bed with a pile of books heaped around you, stroking their pages, like a lustful dragon - you cannot miss a visit to the Library of Congress.

Even though your local library probably has more books than you could ever read, there's something about overwhelming bibliographic excess that stirs the imagination. There's an entire series of rooms dedicated to current telephone directories across the world, for example (with the option to fill out a slip to check out copies from any city in the US since the 1930s). I wandered around the dusty rooms, musing over names from Saverne and Hamburg and Bangalore, and actually found a current address listing for my fifth grade English teacher from the Jakarta International school, Ms. Meyers.

Ms. Meyers! Oh, she was one of those teachers life puts in your path to make sure you get the message. On the first day of fifth grade, she greeted us while jumping rope in front of her desk and warbling opera arias. She played the guitar and led us in sing-alongs, recited poetry with verve, and often sang duets with her tragically doomed love interest next door, the biology teacher Mr. Duncan (who was married.) For about half a year, Ms. Meyers' English class and Mr. Duncan's Biology class played a series of practical jokes on each other - the English class coordinated a walkout in the Biology class, like an anklebiter flashmob, and then the Biology class invaded us in the middle of a poetry reading and threw their socks at us en masse. I remember walking into the classroom for a pencil during lunch and seeing Ms. Meyers perched, like a perfect Venetian statue of a nymph, on Mr. Duncan's lap - Ohhhhh, Mr. Duncan. Leave your potato wife. Choose the goddess... I was a painfully geeky child who could only handle imaginary friendships, so all the love in my fervent lonely heart was channelled towards my effervescent teacher. I adored her. I dreamed about her. I wrote her a series of odes, which have thankfully been lost in the winds of antiquity. All I can remember is one - carefully centered on a piece of red construction paper, in my curliest cursive, surrounded by intricate pictures of daisies, that began, "Ms. Meyers! Ms. Meyers! Your face is like a flower, I could linger there for hours..."

I shook myself out of my Indonesian reverie and trundled out into the main Reading Room. With my cart heaped with lush stacks of telephone directories, messy hair, and armpits and elbows and hands bristling with notebooks and slide packs and notes (they make you check all bags at the entrance) I looked like a crazed idiot savant bag lady. But I didn't care. My mouth was hanging open. The Reading Room is totally fucking awesome, dude.

It has looming ceilings with skylights, so that all the details are picked out by long dramatic beams of sunlight, and rows of rich wood desks, and vertiginous bookshelves, and soaring above you are marble statues of revered scholars and engravings with stirring quotations. If the Scottish Rite Freemason World Headquarters library is a bonsai tree, this room is a towering California redwood. The atmosphere is hushed and solemn and full of tiny noises from earnest intellects working hard; just being there makes you want to sit down and start poring over puzzles in Plato's Phaedrus.

I trundled further, and suddenly someone caught my eye: a man with blond curly hair, writing in a notebook. He was writing blindingly fast, perhaps three times as fast as I'd be able to, and yet his graceful handwriting reminded me of the Declaration of Independence. It wasn't just his hand moving but his whole body, torso rocking back and forth with each line, feet firmly braced on the floor to push through his active arms. (In this age of typing, I think we tend to forget about the world of penmanship, about how much you really can tell from the shape of the abstract lines people draw to frame their thoughts. I had a long-distance relationship for five years that involved a lot of letter-writing, and I can still remember the thrill of that familiar hand, and the effort I'd put into writing beautiful replies - maybe even as much effort as the calligrapher Lixin Wang is capable of exerting with his pinky fingernail.)

What was this man writing? A revolutionary manifesto? A searing poem? A love letter? A description of his most important personal epiphany? Whatever it was, he was fully engrossed in it, eyes sparkling bright with tears, smiling to himself, and I had the suspicion that if I'd stripped off all my clothes, jumped onto his desk, and practiced some of my belly-dancing moves, he would have just kept on writing.

So of course I fell instantly in love with him. I felt the need for some kind of gesture, of appreciation, of respect, of solidarity. So I stopped at a nearby desk and wrote down one of my favorite poems by William Blake (in my best handwriting, of course):

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart,
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

I folded the piece of paper up into an airplane, lobbed it at his desk, and then sprinted away, out of the Reading Room, through the marble halls, and out into the crisp air of a spring sunset, hyperventilating with glee.

I'm telling you, it's the small pleasures.


*If you're really interested, it turns out that the YP directories have been benefiting from ad size wars in particular categories which get a lot of YP business, including personal-injury lawyers, bail bondsmen, and pizza deliveries. Quarter-page ads used to be rare; now there are 30 pages of double-page ads for just one type of personal injury law in Manhattan. Nor is this escalation diminished at all in markets where there's more than one yellow page directory available - because compared to other types of advertising, YP ads are still about 10 times more effective in terms of $cost/$revenue induced. In fact there's a flourishing industry of consultants who specialize in nothing more than optimizing your yellow-page ads (consider changing the name of your small business to Aaaaronson & Sons....) Further, the yellow page directory business has been slow to catch up with the telephone industry deregulation, and there are many medium-size-market-serving directories which have failed to implement any of the new best practices, and the cost of design/publishing/printing has been plummeting, meaning not much startup cost, so if you've got some extra capital, starting a secondary telephone directory in a monopoly market will almost certainly get you a 30-40% annual return on your investment within five years. Wow! Isn't that astounding?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

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