A Life in Catalogues

A Life in Catalogues

One of my male co-workers keeps stacks of magazines in his office that are just a little too tastefully strewn about but still manage to convey the genuine sense of a guy who wants to read each one cover to cover, but just can’t because of how busy he is. “Men’s Journal,” “Outdoor,” “Details,” he’s got them all, some poking out sideways like a tongue from an otherwise ordered collection, or others fanned out on one part of his desk, and still more on his file drawer.

When I once asked him if he ever had time to read them, he sheepishly told me that he rarely read any of them more than quarter of the way through. “I like the look of them,” he told me. “These magazines are for guys who think, “Yeah, I can do that!’ but probably never will. And it’s a signal to women that we’re outdoorsy.”

Wow. I had no idea we had so much in common, and I don’t mean in trying to attract women by appearing rugged and outdoorsy, but in how we approached print ads to conjure up the type of life that we wish we could have but know we can’t. And it’s most likely because it takes too much time and effort to have that life.

My print ads of choice are catalogues, specifically food catalogues. Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma is my escapist literature of choice. Now, I know that all advertising is about creating an unreal world and beckoning you to it so that you too, can have shiny hair that you will constantly flick around (to the annoyance of many people) or have breakfast with your family when it looks like it’s 10 a.m. On a weekday. The point of advertising is to make us spend, so that we can also share in The Good Life.

But even with all this knowledge, I still want it so bad!

Like my friend, my Williams-Sonoma catalog makes me think that I can turn into a great chef (or at least a great cook) by plunking down a nice chunk of change for gorgeously photographed cookware. Or have a slow-paced breakfast of croissants and glistening fruit as the sun comes through the window at the right angle to allow you to revel in that rustic, French country kitchen décor while reading “The New York Times.” Perfect cups of coffee, excellently portioned food, all that’s missing for me is a man with a shock of tousled hair wearing a $50 undershirt and no trace of morning breath.

Now I have enough sense to not march out and spend hundreds of dollars on cookware and a 5-quart oval Le Creuset Dutch oven (in azure blue! And exclusively at Williams-Sonoma!) when my cooking skills are limited to frozen bags of Bertolli Mediterranean-style dinners. But dangle a catalog like Williams-Sonoma in front of me and my mind starts working overtime about the possibilities: I can have this, I can get that, I bet I can put this on that credit card and then make a double-payment. And yes, I know that great pieces of cookware does not a good cook make. But these lifestyle catalogues are different from the ones hawking makeup and shampoo. In those ads, it’s so unrealistic that it’s not even funny: no amount of Salon Selectives, Garnier or Trésommé will transform me into a beauty. (And don’t get me started with the insidious undertone of using French names to conjure up slim, French women who never get fat; we American women have enough image problems.) With a thick Pottery Barn catalogue, transforming your home isn’t as difficult as your waistline. In the PB or Williams-Sonoma promise, it’s always within grasp of your credit limit. And in the case of the latter, they give instructions on how to make seared scallops with spicy aioli! Not only do they make it easy to transform your living or kitchen space, but want you to do something practical with it!

Like my male friend, I also stock up on certain magazines that play to my sense of “I can do that, too!” For me, it’s catalogues and food magazines because what they promise seems so much more in reach than planning some ski trip to Montana or running up and down Mt. Hood. Now all I have to do is learn to cook, get a French country kitchen and some awesome lighting. Toss in the tousled haired guy and I will be living the most perfect catalogue life.