Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares.
This year, I kept my IKEA catalogue. I put it on the table in front of my couch and flipped through it whenever I lost interest in something on television (but not enough to simply switch the channel). It still sits there, under a candle that smells like vanilla lattes.
As a 13-year-old, I’d come to see the IKEA catalogue as a guide to life: a collection of snapshots of what successful, grown-up existence could look like once I earned more than $5 an hour as a babysitter. So I’d sit in the backseat of my parents’ car on our way to wherever they decided we were going and pore over the minimalist-albeit-cozy sleekness of late-nineties Swedish design. And when I finally convinced my mom and dad to buy me a small rug and floor lamp I was mildly obsessed with, I felt as though I’d reached a milestone. I was finally one step closer to the life I dreamed about. A life as grown-up as my recent commitment to the Columbia House CD club.
But like the long-lost Columbia House, catalogues began to fall by the wayside. As the internet made idealized versions of our consumerist futures more available and frequently updated, the sheer ridiculousness of distributing hundreds of pages destined for the recycling bin (or landfill) was even more obvious. The 20th century may have introduced the luxury of sitting at home, combing through seasonal collections, but the 21st century made it commonplace. How could a catalogue feel special when you could scroll through a bright, shiny website? And if it somehow succeeded at feeling special (here’s looking at you, Canadian Tire holiday catalogue), who has the time to read it?
Not us (we told ourselves). We’ve evolved.
The thing is, we haven’t. The novelty of getting fancy mail aside, Canadian Tire actually saw an increase in sales after mailing out its 200-page catalogue to 12 million homes in 2016, while Amazon went so far as to mail out toy catalogues this year (which arguably took the place of the recently deceased Toys "R" Us). Meanwhile, brands such as Tiffany and Holt Renfrew offer catalogues in the form of magazines, with editorial content and high-quality photographs making it easy to forget you’ve lost yourself in large-scale sponsored content. Which is something the holidays excel at already: For a few precious weeks, commercials seem special and endearing, as though they’re selling the promise of happiness over a watch or limited-edition appetizers. They’re like Christmas specials unto themselves, inundating us with merriment until they disappear forever (or until next year) on Dec. 26.
And then there are gift guides – the curated, concise version of catalogues that don’t just populate a shopping and/or gifting narrative but create one for you. (Don’t know what to buy for your cool, hip sister? Behold: Several things that will absolutely be fine.)
But to that end, creating one’s own story is where the magic of catalogues lies. As a kid, I knew my parents didn’t have the money to spring for what I’d fallen in love with in the annual Sears Wish Book (RIP), but I still visited and revisited the toys, clothes and things-adults-seemed-to-care-about, pretending my family was rich and perfect like the families in my catalogue seemed to be. Because even then, I knew it wasn’t the material things that would make everything better, it was whatever circumstances allowed for the acquisition of those things. Everybody seemed so happy; every room seemed as though it was plucked out of the McCallister house from Home Alone. The catalogue wasn’t real life (and it never has been). It was a world in which to lose oneself. It was a brilliant work of fiction, with extensive advertisements for tie-in merchandise.
As of right now, we’re all desperate to escape – preferably in the fastest and most familiar ways. Arriving on our doorsteps or in our mailboxes (or however we get our mail), catalogues do most of the work and come to us, bringing with them the little worlds we can pretend to exist in while the real one burns. Which is a far cry from the purpose catalogues used to serve. Because at this point, we know new things won’t save us from ourselves or bring us joy, but we can pretend. We can toy with alternative realities where that bright, shiny whatever will somehow mean more than its designed purpose. We can imagine material goods helping to cultivate a beautiful, seamless life. We can temporarily believe that a rug or a lamp will catapult us to a bigger and better future, away from the bedrooms we’ve been stuck in forever in the place we’ve been living since before we were born.
Because as much as I wanted it to, my IKEA lamp and rug did not morph my 13-year-old self into a strong, independent woman. By the time the school year started, I was painfully aware all over again of how powerless being 13 felt and how grown up I was not. Also, I owed Columbia House so many dollars. I was painfully misled by their small but mighty catalogue.