How long does it take to read a book? It’s a question that can be answered by the clock or calendar, in hours, days, or weeks. But often, our reading time feels more abstract. A slim volume of dry theory proceeds in fits and starts. That took forever to get through. But a novel causes an afternoon to pass all at once: suddenly, you look out the window, and the light has changed. That was no time at all.
Jenny Odell’s Saving Time is the latter kind of work, proof of the author’s assertion that time can be fluid, spacious, and altogether more than we imagine. As with her previous book, the breakout success How To Do Nothing, here Odell does not confine herself to working out a single thesis. Her thinking moves not in a line, but in a series of twisting, overlapping curves, represented by the Bay Area road trip—from Oakland to the Pacific coast and back—that structures the book.
That’s not to say there aren’t argumentative points along the way. Odell identifies our misperceptions of time: as a resource to be managed and turned into money; as a scarce commodity; as a line of tracks running, relentlessly, into the future with nothing we can do to shape its trajectory. In the latter chapters, she dreams of alternatives: time that’s shared communally rather than hoarded individually; time that somehow makes more of itself; time as changing leaves and shifting mountains instead of a ticking second hand.
Rather than offering productivity hacks, Saving Time sets out to challenge the very idea of time management. Instead of the “fungible” time measured by employers, where “one hour is indistinguishable from another—decontextualized, depersonalized, and infinitely divisible,” Odell instead invites us to see time as it exists in nature: cyclical and uneven, like light moving across a sundial or the slow shift from winter to spring. In one thought experiment, Odell studies the branch of a buckeye tree in a nearby park, observing its buds, flowers, and fruit.
What is a clock? If it’s something that “tells the time,” then my branch was a clock—but unlike the clock at home, it would never return to its original position. Instead, it was a physical witness and record of overlapping events, some of which happened long ago and some of which are still occurring as I write this.
Keeping time by other clocks might result in less freneticism, even less anxiety. Instead of hustling to “‘live your best life’…[w]hat about choosing to live ‘Just a life’?” Odell wonders. And instead of time as a race toward climate apocalypse—a dread to which she admits she’s susceptible—what about time as potential, time that allows for hope?
A non-future where people’s beliefs and behaviors are as determined as the earth seems inert and helpless. Without suppressing grief, there has to be a different way of thinking about time than the one in which we’re simply strapped in all the way to the end.