Suppose the horse-and-carriage industry not only survived the introduction of the automobile but actually flourished as cars grew commonplace? What if eight-track tapes were a billion-dollar business today, more popular than iPods and Zunes? Would that be any stranger than the fact that U.S. consumers have purchased millions and millions of calendars in the last few weeks?
According to Publishers Weekly, there were fewer than 200 calendars for sale in 1976. Today, there are more than 6,500 from which to choose. Part of this proliferation is due to the fact that we once got the bulk of our calendars for free, from banks, insurance companies and other businesses eager to keep their phone numbers in front of their customers’ eyes throughout the year. But it’s not as if those businesses were giving away more than one copy to each customer, or offering them in multiple formats. And yet, as we shift gears from 2008 to 2009, how many among us are not tacking up a Sarah Palin 2009 calendar in our kitchen, and clearing off a space on our desk at work for the Insult-a-Day 2009 calendar, and jotting down the year’s first doctor appointment in our New Yorker Cat Cartoons weekly engagement calendar? Clearly, we are far more concerned about the passing of each day, each week, each month, than our carefree, calendar-lite counterparts in the 1970s.
Wristwatch sales have plummeted this decade because more and more people turn to their cellphones, PDAs and computers to tell time. Those devices are equipped with calendars too, and yet our allegiance to the old-fashioned paper version is only deepening. Why? They don’t offer much space for adding notes, so you end up buying more than one. They’re not very portable, so you end buying more than two. They’re guaranteed to break after a year, no matter how infrequently you use them. So you buy them again and again and again. Their poor performance is the key to their great success.
Newspaper and magazine companies are giving away products that people once paid for, and they can still barely retain an audience. The music business has turned itself into the T-shirt-sales-and-license-your-song-to-Target business because people won’t buy albums anymore. Calendar publishers are charging $13.99 for a product people used to get for free, and consumers can’t get enough of them. If the New York Times and USA Today start marketing themselves as extremely comprehensive page-a-day calendars, perhaps printed newspapers won’t entirely disappear.
Of course, they’ll have to cut back dramatically on their editorial. One reason calendars are so popular is that they’re perfectly geared to today’s short attention spans. You probably don’t have time to read all 652 pages of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example. You may not even be able to free up 100 minutes from your busy schedule when the movie version comes out this summer. But certainly, you can spare 10 seconds every 30 days or so to look at the dozen portraits in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: 2009 Mini Wall Calendar. Even at their most demanding—e.g., the MENSA 10 Minute Crossword Puzzles 2009 Desk Calendar—calendars don’t expect too much from you. Calendar publishers know your most precious resource is time.
Time no longer governs our actions the way it once did. Thanks to Denny’s, we can eat breakfast at 4 p.m. Thanks to Netflix, we can return our latest DVD rental on Thursday, Friday—whenever we want. We can shop for golf clubs at 4 a.m., apply for home loans with no regard to banker’s hours, flirt with strangers long before happy hour arrives. Even before clocks and calendars were invented, time was never this abstract. But because we don’t have to pay much attention to time, it grows even more elusive. Digital clocks give no nod toward what lies ahead, what has just passed. It’s just 12:43 a.m., then 12:44 a.m., an endless, seamless present.
Where does all the time go, we find ourselves wondering. How can we get it back, claim our due, slow down that imperceptible but steady leak of seconds that undermines us all? Through calendars, of course, those clunky, low-tech, but reassuringly tangible stockpiles of unused time, complete with bonus photographs of fluffy kittens and lightly clad Olympics sports babes. Forget cryogenics—if we slap a poster-sized calendar on the wall, and keep a novel-thick one on our desks, and maintain various back-up editions in other strategic locations, we just might live forever.