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Review of Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time by

Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

I spend a lot of time (hah) thinking about how little we understand the way people in the past actually lived, day to day, simply because technology that we now take for granted has changed things we don’t even think about. I take it for granted that I can know the precise time, as we currently measure it, all the time. I take it for granted that I can flick a switch and have light even in the middle of the night. These things mould and shape my perception of our world, but they are artifacts of the present society, not inviolate states of being. Timekeepers looks at our fascination, or our obsession as the subtitle bills it, with time, and the way this obsession has evolved hand-in-hand with technologies.

Simon Garfield’s name rang a bell when I saw this on NetGalley. Plus, it’s a book about time! How could that go wrong? I might have been more hesitant had I remembered the other Garfield book I’ve read is On the Map. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for those free books, so I dove into Timekeepers hoping to learn some interesting things. And I did. But I was also bored. I do, however, appreciate Canongate Books and NetGalley for making this ARC available to me.

I’m starting to hate reading non-fiction on my tablet. I have no idea, on my tablet, how far I am through a book. With a physical book, this is not a problem, obviously. Even with a novel in ebook form, the natural arc of the narrative means I can guess when we’re approaching the end. I know that ereader apps tend to tell you how far you are through the book (or how much is remaining), but that is just a number to me; it doesn’t give me a good sense of how much progress I’ve made. With non-fiction, this is a problem; I start feeling bogged down, and if the book is not really compelling me to read on, I drag my heels. This was my experience with Timekeepers.

Some of the individual chapters here are fascinating. I genuinely enjoyed Garfield’s discourse on the reasons why movies have different frame-rates from television and, in the beginning, even variable frame-rates. That was a cool tidbit of knowledge. Similarly, Garfield discusses the way our ability to precisely measure time has contributed to such phenomena as world records (the “4-minute mile”) and mass production (the assembly line and scientific management). All of these are interesting phenomena that are worth (and have had books written about them) in their own rights.

And that’s really where Timekeepers fails to deliver for me: the subject matter here is just too varied. It’s a smorgasboard of subjects that are all vaguely connected to time in some way, but they are not connected to each other. Some of the chapters are short, others quite long—or in the case of Garfield’s digression into watchmaking, he gives the subject two chapters. This is not a linear or chronological history, and while Garfield makes that quite clear in the preface, the subtitle of this book—How the World Became Obsessed With Time—suggests otherwise. I was all on board with his promise to jump around and look at the issue thematically, but now, at the end of the journey, I’m wishing there were some kind of chronological thread to tie everything together.

I don’t want to be too hard on Timekeepers, because it is not a bad book. It is well-written, well-researched, and interesting. Yet it is also long. It could have benefited from some more rigorous (read: ruthless) editing to restrain some of Garfield’s more enthusiastic tangents. This is not the type of pop culture non-fiction book I enjoy, the kind that grabs me and makes me want to keep reading because there is just so much to learn from it. As with On the Map, I feel like this is partly because of an incompatibility of styles, and so you might enjoy this book just fine and find nothing wrong with it whatsoever.

The anecdotes and history related in this book have given me some ideas for books I want to read next, for sure. But whatever good will or fascination Timekeepers fostered with each fact it squandered on the stamina required to simply get through it. Reading this kept reminding me of the six-part series from BBC, How We Got to Now, hosted by Steven Johnson. Each episode focused on a specific topic, which provided a good way to take a non-chronological look at history. Perhaps this book would fare better as a such a miniseries. Take it to Netflix, Garfield, and I’ll give it another go!


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