These two books tell the same basic story, the end result of which is known to every sleepy conformist who has just wasted a half-hour of the saved...
“Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time”
by David Prerau
Thunder’s Mouth Press,
272 pp., $23
“Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time”
by Michael Downing
Shoemaker & Hoard,
202 pp., $23
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These two books tell the same basic story, the end result of which is known to every sleepy conformist who has just wasted a half-hour of the saved daylight by walking about, setting one hour forward everything from the clock over the mantle, to the VCR, to the microwave, to the Mickey Mouse watch on his child’s arm. What served all winter as a perfectly decent hour for arising, 7 o’clock, is this morning, through the magic of modern chronometry, 8 o’clock, and high time to get moving.
Unless, of course, you happen to live in Indiana or Arizona or some other region that suffers from a kind of chronological schizophrenia. Places that allow local option increase freedom at the expense of mind-threatening chaos. At one time, in West Virginia, a bus ride of 35 miles would carry one through seven time zones.
Neither book is altogether serious about its topic, needless to say, though Michael Downing, author of “Spring Forward,” is the more serious and sober and more likely to appeal to policy wonks. David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight,” litters his readable account with apt cartoons. For example: Little old lady watering her garden complains, “This extra hour of daylight is ruining my flowers!”
The story begins, like many others, with that perennial fussbudget Benjamin Franklin. In Paris, Franklin complained that the French slept through the best and sunniest hours of the day only to waste money later on trying to work by expensive candlelight.
In the absence of any reliable DNA, this paternity is of course contested. Other claimants are Woodrow Wilson, one of the Caesars, et al.
Add to these famous names that of Joseph Stalin. He did not invent DST, but he did decide that in the spring of 1930 all Russians would set their clocks one hour forward. He forgot to say that they should set them back in the fall. The result: for more than 60 years the USSR was an hour ahead of the rest of the world, an inconvenience that the strategists of WWII and the Cold War failed to notice. The Russians got back in time with the rest of us only in 1991.
Do you make the common mistake of adding an ‘s’ to the word “saving”? Downing uses this to point out that, far from being a savings plan, DST is actually a spending plan. That is why one of the main backers of the idea was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the same body that persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving back a week in order to enlarge the Christmas shopping season. The idea was that workers headed home at 5 o’clock would find the streets less dark and better for shopping.
In 1984, that year of Orwellian angst, the commercial interests persuaded Congress to tack on seven extra weeks of DST. Fortune magazine estimated that this alone enriched the 7-Eleven convenience stores by $30 million a year.
If you live in the sane state of Washington, either of these books will satisfy your curiosity about DST.
If you are an irate Hoosier, convinced that DST is an Eastern establishment plot to make your cows nervous through lack of sleep, you’ll want both of them … for burning.