As summer turns to fall, the best-seller list typically moves from beach reads to more titles on self-improvement.
How-to guides are a big part of the U.S. publishing industry. They date from as far back as the 18th century, when farmer’s almanacs became a commercial staple.
All of this comes to mind as the latest farmer’s almanacs make their fall debut. Janice Stillman — only the 13th editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac since its founding by Robert B. Thomas in 1792 — touts the lengthy lineage of her almanac in its just-published 2012 edition, noting that this year marks the almanac’s 220th year of publication.
In the agrarian society of Thomas’ time, Stillman says, “printed matter was scarce yet cherished. Most households possessed two books (only one of which accepted advertising): a Bible and a farmer’s almanac.”
Self-improvement publications are infinitely more numerous and varied these days, with scores of books and magazines offering direction on everything from losing weight to dealing with difficult people. Even so, the advice offered in farmer’s almanacs seems hard to find anywhere else.
That’s especially true with the astrological tables in The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which use the debatable but colorful practice of studying moon, sun and planetary positions to determine the best times for doing everything from going to the dentist to cutting hay.
In the latest edition of The Old Farmer’s Almanac, readers learn that next Jan. 13 and 17 are among the best times to quit smoking, that May 11 and 12 are good days to castrate animals, and that June 24 and 25 are among the ideal dates to schedule dental care.
Whatever readers think of that advice, it’s not the sort of thing they’ll find in O Magazine or GQ. Which is why, one gathers, farmer’s almanacs probably will be a part of autumn for at least another two centuries.