Jenny Odell (Chani Bockwinkel)

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.

Changing our minds about time means increasing our advocacy for people with disabilities, people in prison, new mothers—really, anyone who exists outside of that straight-line, full-speed-ahead kind of life.

The implications of these mindsets aren’t so much individual—notice more branches, throw out the day planners—as they are political. Throughout Saving Time, Odell expresses support for universal basic income and health care, paid childcare and climate action: policies that would give time back to those who really do have less. She challenges the Western reader to value other cultures’ conceptions of time, particularly Indigenous peoples’. And she asks the wellness-obsessed to think about people other than themselves. Put aside the biometric tracking; pursue “life extension that reaches outward instead of forward, an increase in aliveness for everyone that begins with mutual regard.” Changing our minds about time means increasing our advocacy for people with disabilities, people in prison, new mothers—really, anyone who exists outside of that straight-line, full-speed-ahead kind of life.

At least, that’s what Odell suspects. Reading Saving Time, I could see her making connections as she wrote, drawing more and more arguments into the scope of her work. The text reads like a commonplace book, full of quotes from Indigenous scholars, environmentalists, and housework-for-wages advocates, but also geologists and botanists. There are scattered musings on colonial theory and the racist legacy of national parks and daylight savings and the carceral state. There are poems and diary excerpts, stills from performance art pieces and pictures from her road trip to the ocean. There are many footnotes, many endnotes, and an index.

In forgoing linearity for discursiveness, Odell gives us the sense of being inside a mind: her mind, anxiously combing through evidence. There’s something she must figure out, not just for the reader but for herself. When she states the stakes, she does so sincerely. “All your time grew out of someone else’s time,” she writes:

If time were not the currency of a zero-sum game…sometimes, the best way for me to get more time would be to give it to you, and the best way for you to get some would be to give it back to me. If time were not a commodity, then time, our time, would not be as scarce as it seemed just a moment ago. Together, we could have all the time in the world.

But these moments of synthesis are rarer than they might be and sometimes, the ideas of other thinkers overwhelm the book. It’s not that the quotes and examples are unwarranted. Odell really does see interconnections between sea star wasting syndrome and segregated parks and controlled burning and Taylorist factory principles, and she wants her work to give credit to the scholars she’s learned from. But so many references can also leave the book cluttered with concepts; the reader wants more of the author and less of her sources. Implicit calls to different kinds of advocacy for different groups of marginalized people can make one feel like one is being marshaled to action before making the necessary connections between time and all of these subjects. And the first-person descriptions of Odell’s road trip just don’t work, either as an organizing principle or as a stand-in for analysis. The trip feels contrived for the purposes of what’s on the page—a pit stop at a shopping mall for the chapter on leisure, an eroding seawall for a section on our climate future—rather than an organic meditation on movement in time and space.

Saving Time isn’t a perfect book. And maybe it isn’t meant to be. Emerging from it with a complete understanding of its ideas wouldn’t really be true to the kind of work that it is. Rather than catching Odell at an endpoint—this is what I think—we find her mid-conjecture: this is what I’m thinking, with all of the accompanying imprecision. When we put aside the inevitable and the taken-for-granted, she insists, we’ll find ourselves as she is now: doubting, second-guessing, circling back. We’ll find ourselves moving like the tides, at least (at last?) free from always pressing forward.

Saving Time
Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock

Jenny Odell
Random House
$28.99 | 400 pp. 

Kate Lucky ​is an editor at Christianity Today.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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