Manage. Save. Kill. Serve. The verbs we use with “time” often suggest an ongoing battle for dominance. “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock,” Jenny Odell’s subtle, itinerant study of time, feels like an attempt to break through the language of power and find something approaching coexistence.
In her 2019 book “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” Odell suggests that the loneliness and freneticism bred by social media can be countered by digging deeply into nature, community, and reacquaintance with the places we live.
This book, too, suggests that fighting “clock time” — which treats hours as fungible and people as productivity units — might involve a form of attention. She proposes a state of mind in which a person looking at a fragment of rock is seeing not only it, but also “seafloor from the last ice age, and future sand.”
Reading “Saving Time,” I was reminded of the overview effect, whereby astronauts viewing the earth from space — seeing it small, defamiliarized, and distant — report a fundamental shift in their understanding of life on this planet. Making time strange to us is one of Odell’s tricks — and she works to show that clock-time is a deeply evitable phenomenon. “I think the reason most people see time as money is not that they want to, but that they have to,” Odell writes. “This modern view of time can’t be extricated from the wage relationship, the necessity of selling your time, which, as common and unquestionable as it seems now, is as historically specific as any other method of valuing work and existence.”
Odell notes that “[e]ven in the eighteenth century, a Chinese reference book called Western clocks ‘simply intricate oddities, destined for the pleasure of the senses,’ objects that ‘fulfil[led] no basic needs.’” She hops from the spread of clock-time to the roots of contemporary corporate surveillance of workers (including a modern productivity-scoring software called, incredibly, “StaffCop”), to the rise of personal productivity gurus (one 1925 advice book suggests avoiding reading during your commute, because “Every minute of complete relaxation while riding can be subtracted from your sleep”), to the way climate dread impacts our sense of time (“Even for a very privileged person who is isolated from the effects of climate change, toggling between a Slack window and headlines about a soon-to-be-uninhabitable earth produces, at the very least, a sense of dissonance and, at the very worst, a kind of spiritual nausea and nihilism”), to a (much-too-brief) section on prison, perhaps the place in contemporary American life that illustrates most starkly the cruelty of a life measured in hours and days.
There are gaps: Odell doesn’t look at ideas of time in antiquity, which, through miracles of preservation and transmission, survived like so many fragments of ancient seafloor. Nor is religion — arguably one of the primary ways people take themselves out of clock-time — considered, except in the context of Christian missionaries using church bells to impose their timelines on Indigenous people. The ways observant Jews, for instance, conceive of time and ritual outside of the clock seem deeply relevant; but she only mentions the Jewish Sabbath once, quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s description of it as “a palace” within time. But she moves swiftly on. What a shame — Heschel’s writing on the mistake of “embezzling” your own life, on the art of “perfect rest,” rhymes so thrillingly with hers across time and faith.
But “Saving Time” is nonetheless a joy: Odell writes lovingly of “the stretchy quality of waiting and desire, the way the present may suddenly feel marbled with childhood memory, the slow but sure procession of a pregnancy, or the time it takes to heal from injuries, physical or emotional.” As in her other work, this is intimately tied to the natural world: “As planet-bound animals, we live inside shortening and lengthening days; inside the weather, where certain flowers and scents come back, at least for now, to visit a year-older self. Sometimes time is not money but these things instead.”
Odell has said that she wrote “Saving Time” in part because people would ask her, in response to her last book, “What if I don’t have time to do nothing?” She’s clear that people have unequal access to free time, and that time is measured differently if you are, for instance, a caretaker, an older person, a disabled person, or juggling multiple jobs to survive. There are familiar traps in writing about disadvantage or oppression — it’s as wrongheaded to suggest someone is utterly without agency as it is to tell them they should be able to overcome it, if only they try hard enough. Without succumbing to either bootstrapperism or despair, she makes the case for a time that belongs to all of us, and the trick is to “be more alive in any given moment” — and to see and answer the life in each other.
To “be alive,” Odell writes toward the beginning of the book, “is to be in transit.” Whether you are driving, or riding in the passenger seat, or tied to the roof, is a matter of both circumstances and perspective. In any case, she reminds us that the ride will be over soon enough.
SAVING TIME: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock
By Jenny Odell
Random House, 400 pp., $28.99