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Monday, April 25, 2022

The Landline Life and Uses of Phones in Literature

Photo by Pexels


April 25 is National Telephone Day. As a child of the late 1980s and early 1990s, oh how I loved the telephone. I was talking to someone the other day about how many phone numbers I had memorized when I was a teenager, and now I can barely remember my own kids’ phone numbers because they are automatically programmed into my phone. 

I'm an only child, and once my parents let me have my own phone extension in my room, I thought I had struck gold. Looking back, it was probably because they were tired of hearing me yakking with my friends out in the living room all the time. I would spend hours on that phone, calling anyone and everyone I could think of, including the DJs at the radio station so I could request songs. Does anyone remember calling your parents collect from a pay phone when you were ready for a ride home? In high school and college, I spent more time than I want to share sitting next to my phone willing it to ring when I was waiting for a guy to call. 

As telephones have evolved, so have their use in books. I read an interview with young adult author Lois Duncan years ago where she discussed how her publisher tasked her with updating versions of her books from the 1970s. She said much of that updating required her figuring out how to get the phones away from the characters. I thought back to all the thrillers I’d read by her and laughed out loud. She was right. So many of the mysteries and suspense revolved around the lack of technology. For example, in the book “Down a Dark Hall” a group of girls with psychic abilities are lured to a prestigious yet small boarding school for gifted girls. Once there, the headmistress imprisons them and uses them to channel famous deceased dead artists and musicians so they can create “new” original works she can sell for thousands of dollars. In the modern adaptation for film, the headmistress has the girls all hand over their phones in a locked box in her office so they can focus on their studies, preventing them from calling anyone from help for most of the film. 

Can you think of any books you’ve read in the past where the plots would have been solved within the first 20 pages if the protagonist had access to a phone and/or computer? I’d love to hear about them. And Happy National Telephone Day!

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer, regional magazine editor, and host/creator of the true crime podcast Missing in the Carolinas


  1. I'm currently listening to Just Haven't Met You Yet and her situation is prolonged by a dead phone. In real life, I go so many places with poor to non-existent cell service.

  2. I don't know about books, Renee, but in EVERY horror or thriller movie or TV show(back in the day), there was always that ubiquitous scene showing that the telephone line had been cut. (Or lifting the phone and hearing no dial tone.)

    Cue the scary, you're-a-goner-now music! :-)


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