After two months of looking for phone books, I finally gave up.
When I was a kid, phone books were absolutely everywhere, and you got a new one every few months from God knows where — they just magically appeared on your front steps without explanation. So when I stumbled across this WikiHow piece offering methods of how to tear a phone book in half, I thought getting a few phone books to try these out would be easy-peasy. But no, not at all — finding phone books was a goddamn nightmare.
I tried eBay, Amazon, friends on Facebook and calling various older relatives to see if they had one, but I always came up empty. I ordered some phone books from the phone company, and after waiting three weeks, all I got were 10 books that were scarcely thicker than magazines. All told, I ended up with just two sufficiently thick phone books: One was from an aunt who used to work at the phone company, and the other was a “participating provider directory” that I found in my wife’s car (I sincerely hope she doesn’t need it, because I just took it and hoped she didn’t notice — this is how desperate I became). But since I needed multiple phone books, as I wanted to try several different phone-book-tearing methods, finally, about two months after the search began, I said fuck it and figured that dictionaries are good enough, ordering about 10 old ones from eBay.
So now, this piece is mostly about ripping dictionaries in half because phone books — I’m convinced — either somehow never existed outside of some vast, collective fever dream, or were part of the most effective recycling program in human history.
Anyway, point is, I wanted to rip some phone books in half. Now, I’m not like, freakishly strong or anything and I don’t really ever lift weights, so I thought it’d be a ridiculous challenge to find ways to cheat at the legendary strength test. To that end, in addition to that WikiHow article, I looked up some stuff on YouTube and even tried to invent a few cheats myself.
Here’s what happened along the way…
Method #1: Trying Without Any Guidance
Every good experiment needs a control, so I first tried to rip a phone book in half without any guidance from online resources. The dictionaries are thick enough, but they’re a little smaller than real phone books, so I decided to use an actual phone book here, or more specifically, my wife’s 633-page provider directory.
At first, I figured that I wouldn’t be able to rip anything without some kind of cheat, but as it turns out, I was wrong. After trying to rip the book along every other side, I then went for the spine, and was able to hear a satisfying “pop” sound when I broke the seam. Encouraged, I continued to wrestle with it for a bit before I was able to tear all the way through. The halves weren’t exactly even, as I ended up tearing off more like a big corner of it, but still, I was sufficiently impressed with myself, though I quickly threw out the evidence for fear that my wife would find her mangled directory.
As a followup, I tried ripping one of the dictionaries in half, just to make sure they were comparable to the phone books. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pull it off: The shorter pages made for a sturdier book, so while I still heard that “pop” sound, I never quite got it in half.
Method #2: The “S” Technique
The WikiHow page makes mention of this method, from what I can tell, but, like so many WikiHow entries, it came off as confusing and convoluted, so I found something on YouTube that was way clearer. Basically, to rip a phone book not by the spine, you have to hold it against your body in an “S” formation, and then try to tear that book apart.
On the first go, I tried like hell to do this correctly, but after two minutes of continuous tearing, I was pretty wiped out. I came back to it a few minutes later and tried again, also failing, though I noticed that each time I was tearing more and more pages. Finally, on attempt number eight, I managed to tear the book totally in two from the top to the bottom, proving that this method actually does work, even if it took me over 20 minutes, with multiple breaks in between. More than likely someone else with more upper body strength — or a thinner phone book — would be able to do this much more easily.
Method #3: The Slow Cook
The WikiHow piece also mentions an effective way to cheat at tearing a phone book in half. Essentially, you have to slow bake the book first and then tear it apart. So, following the instructions, I put one of the dictionaries in the oven for two hours at 200 degrees, checking it periodically to make sure it wasn’t consumed by flames (“a hot glowing body of ignited gas that is generated by something on fire,” per the dictionary). This was made extra difficult because my oven light was out, so I had to look in there with a flashlight.
After two hours, I removed the book and let it sit to cool down. I immediately noticed that the glue in the spine had melted and that the book was already coming apart, which was very encouraging to me.
After letting it cool for about 10 minutes, I went to go rip that sucker in two, hoping that my choice of a dictionary over a phone book wasn’t going to bite me in the ass. As it turned out, it did fuck things up: No matter how hard I pressed and pulled, I couldn’t get that thing to tear. Instead, it just fell apart, with the cover and pages falling all over the place. Unfortunately, I was never able to get enough of a grip on it to actually tear the fucking thing. While I’m sure this method works great on actual phone books, on little dictionaries, it’s hopeless.
Method #4: The Microwave
Part of me thought about slow baking another book, but I decided to move on: I had failed at that method, and it was time for the next one. This time, I went to cook a book in the microwave to see if that would work. I tried to be safe about it and use a converter chart I found online, but I found it really confusing, so I just said the hell with it and shoved a dictionary in the microwave on full power for 10 minutes.
I hung out in the kitchen during this time, just to be sure the book didn’t end up like that gremlin that was cooked in the microwave in the first Gremlins movie. Everything seemed okay for the first six minutes or so, but at minute number seven, I started to smell smoke and, well, you’ll see.
So I took the smoking book out of the microwave with a pair of tongs, tossed it in the sink and hit the water. I then proceeded to open every window in my house as my eyes and throat burned from the stench. After unplugging the microwave and getting my wits about me, I decided to try to rip the burned — and now soaking — dictionary in half.
It worked! But seriously, there are way better, safer and less monumentally stupid ways to do this, so don’t fucking try this at home.
Method #5: Tearing It From the Middle
While I was waiting for my book to be microwaved but before my near-death experience, I decided to try the third WikiHow method. This one is the stupidest cheat ever, but I had enough books now, so why not? Basically, just take the book and turn to a page about halfway through, and tear the spine from the inside. It works, of course, because it requires no strength whatsoever.
Method #6: The Soak
This one I made up, but it kind of makes sense — soak a book overnight and then it should tear apart like nothing the next morning, right? Right. After about 18 hours submerged in water, the book proved to be fairly easy-ish to tear. It was still a little tough because it was hard to grip that small, water-logged dictionary, but I got it to tear after about a minute.
Method #7: Deep Freeze
I have to admit, by this one, I was out of ideas. My thinking was that I wanted to see if freezing a book might be an effective method for breaking it in two. Not to rip it, of course: My thinking was that if I froze it, it might shatter, kind of like Wesley Snipes’ head in Demolition Man. So, I put a book in a Ziploc bag, filled it with water and left it overnight.
When I pulled the Ziploc out of the freezer, the book was frozen solid in a block of ice, so I removed the bag, took the book outside and tossed it into the air and onto my sidewalk.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me, but it didn’t work. The ice shattered off the book, but the book itself remained 100 percent intact. Then I remembered that a) they used liquid nitrogen in Demolition Man; and b) that Demolition Man is a work of fiction. I have no idea where I’d get a hold of liquid nitrogen and considering how things went with my microwave, I wasn’t really willing to try.
All in all, if you want to rip a phone book in half, I recommend the “S” method, or just not doing it at all. Not only are phone books really hard to find these days, but once you do find them, you just may end up needing to replace your microwave as a result.