At the beginning of October every year I go to the office superstore and buy an appointment book for the year ahead. It can’t be put it off any longer.

I don’t even know if “Appointment Book” is the right name for these things. Some people call them Agenda Books, but I don’t have an agenda. They also masquerade as Planners and Date Books. They come in an extravagant variety of shapes, sizes, and formats. There are academic year planners, whole year planners, five-year planners for real masochists, page-a-day, page-a-week and page-a-month planners, pocket versions, and so-called desk organizers. Some have aggressive, macho names like “Action Planner,” and others are designed for the terminally sentimental, with cute little titles like Life, Love and Dreams. I saw one that was full of Angels, one for every week of the year. The book I chose, a very plain, black and ordinary week-by-week appointment book, is described (no doubt ironically) by its manufacturers as a “Self Management System.” This unlikely claim makes me smile every time I look at it.

I admit that simply buying an appointment book made out of paper marks me as a hopelessly out of date relic of the past, a walking memorial to Johannes Gutenberg. All the people looking at this display in the office superstore were senior citizens. Modern young people prefer those miniature computers, with tiny screens the size of postage stamps, that keep all their plans and notes safe, unless and until the batteries run out. But a lot of us still prefer an old-fashioned book to keep our lives in order.

For some reason not yet diagnosed by a competent psychiatrist I keep all my old appointment books. So if you ask me (which no one ever does): “What were you doing on February 27 in 1974?” I can reply with confidence that I was I was scheduled to teach a seminar on Alexis de Tocqueville, and in the evening go to dinner at a rather nice restaurant. The record shows that I went to a lot of nice restaurants in 1974, but I can’t remember why. It certainly wasn’t because I had any money.

These books are not exactly diaries, because they record the future not the past. They tell the story of your life before it happens. But they serve some of the functions of a diary. It’s good to know that at least I intended to do all those things, even if I can’t remember actually doing any of them. For all I know the seminar in 1974 was a disaster and the dinner gave me food poisoning, but these facts are mercifully not recorded, and have vanished from memory.

Some people plan their lives years ahead. Like the old Soviet Union they have five-year plans, and ten-year plans. But I believe that personal long-term plans are a waste of time. Governments and symphony orchestras may be able to schedule things years ahead, but individuals are at the mercy of fate. I prefer to organize my future one-day at a time, or at the most one week at a time. It seems excessively optimistic to do more. The older I get the more I would appreciate a six month appointment book at half the price.

But a new appointment book, however modest, is like a Pandora’s Box in reverse. It starts out empty and harmless but, as time goes by, it becomes full and intimidating and threatens to take over your life. Next year’s decisions come rushing in, long before I’m ready to think seriously about them. The pages of a fresh appointment book are so empty that everything seems possible. After all, next year is still weeks away, so why not fill up some of those blank dates? Why not accept an invitation to Vancouver in March, and teach a summer school in Iowa in June, and go to a conference Las Vegas in February, and another in Stockholm in July, a tour with the radio station to France in September, and even a slim chance to go to China in October? It’s easy to just jot these dates down. They don’t seem real, but they will!

That’s the way the years fill up, with one undisciplined decision after another. An appointment book is a kind of temporal credit card, with which we spend the days of our lives before they have even arrived, but there’s no escaping the payment when it falls due.

Copyright: David Bouchier