Timekeepers – Simon Garfield


This book should have been better.  It’s all about time – how we live with it, how we track it, how it dominates our lives, how people in history viewed it compared to now, what changes there’ve been over the centuries that affect our interactions with it, and how there are so many contradictions in how we see it.  Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?  I thought so too – that’s why I read it.

And it’s not a bad book – it’s a decent read and there are certainly some interesting facts.  Did you know that railroads are really what ushered in time zones throughout the world?  There had to be a way to synchronize times across large landmasses such that people actually knew when trains would arrive and depart.  When the railroads first started, every city kept time in its own way depending on the sun, meaning there were effectively hundreds of time zones in the US alone.  It didn’t matter before trains because no one cared what time it was in another city.  The railroads changed that – and changed it wherever they ran in the world.  The railroads couldn’t have one city be off from another by fifteen minutes and then a third be off a further ten minutes from the second one.  So they instituted time zones.  Did you know that the length of a CD was determined by one inventor’s desire to fit Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on it?  Did you know that a man named Christian Marclay made a movie called The Clock which lasts 24 hours and is made up of roughly 12,000 scenes from other movies that have clocks in them and the movie is made such that the clocks in the scenes show the actual time (assuming you started the movie at the right time)?  This means that The Clock is a clock.  [You can check out snippets of the movie on YouTube – it’s probably worth five minutes or so of your ‘time.’]  Did you know North Korea set its clocks back 30 minutes in 2015 just because Japan had forced it to adopt Japanese time back in World War II and it wanted to reverse the indignity?  Did you know there’s an organization called the Long Now Foundation that’s building a huge ‘10,000 Year Clock’ in a mountain in Texas that is made to run for 10,000 years on thermal energy and will chime periodically throughout that time without ever repeating the same chime twice?  Did you know that watchmakers typically advertise their watches showing the time as 10:10 because it makes the watch look like it’s smiling?

Good stuff.  But not enough of it to recommend the book.  The interesting facts and good sections don’t make up for the parts that drag and the parts you read without really understanding where the author’s going or why the story he’s telling is in the book.  And that’s disappointing because as I said in the first sentence above, it should have been a good read.  The overall theme is a good one.  Alas, though, you can’t waste time reading a mediocre book on time.

To give you a taste for the book, here is a section toward the end that I thought was pretty thought-provoking (along with a Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall that the author used):

Our own personal doomsday scenario is a lot closer than the closest weapons silo.  This is the doom of us cowed and diminished by time, of time controlling our lives to such a degree that we feel it is almost impossible to keep up.  Or perhaps even worse: we keep up, but other things suffer.  We are forever making sacrifices and compromises.  There isn’t enough time for family, but there isn’t enough time for work either, or the things we deem increasingly important, like the dreamy prospect of doing nothing.

And we know this makes no sense, and we don’t like what has become of our lives.  We crave punctuality, but we loath deadlines.  We count down precisely on New Year’s Eve so we may obliterate the hours that follow.  We pay for ‘priority boarding’ so that we may sit on a plane and wait for everyone else to join us, and then when we land we pay to get off early.  We used to have time to think, but now instant communication barely gives us time to react.  Paradise is a beach and the eternal waves and a good book, but then there’s email.

“Life is full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” ~Woody Allen

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