Chime af­ter chime, for gen­er­a­tions with­out end

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - An­drew McMillen

Bri­tish author Si­mon Garfield sure likes a chal­lenge. Af­ter pub­lish­ing 17 non­fic­tion books on topics such as stamp col­lect­ing, fonts, maps and the colour mauve, his lat­est work is de­voted to ex­plor­ing some­thing we’re all in­nately fa­mil­iar with, from the youngest age: time.

We see it in the ris­ing and the set­ting of the sun, in our daily rou­tines and in the nar­ra­tive arc of each of our lives, which we hope are long and well-lived. In­deed, the topic seems so enor­mous in scope that one wonders how on earth a writer could wrap his arms around it and re­turn with some­thing wor­thy, orig­i­nal and valu­able.

To his credit, that’s just what Garfield achieves with Time­keep­ers, a witty, well-struc­tured and con­sis­tently fas­ci­nat­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of how hu­mans have per­ceived, con­tained and saved time over the past 2½ cen­turies. In the in­tro­duc­tion, he ex­plains the book is about our ob­ses­sion with the most com­monly used noun in the English lan­guage — ac­cord­ing to the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary — and our de­sire to mea­sure it, con­trol it, im­mor­talise it and make it mean­ing­ful. He goes on: [Time­keep­ers] con­sid­ers how, over the last 250 years, time has be­come such a dom­i­nant and in­sis­tent force in our lives, and asks why, af­ter tens of thou­sands of years of look­ing up at the sky for vague and moody guid­ance, we now take atom­i­cally pre­cise cues from our phones and com­put­ers not once or twice a day but con­tin­u­ally and com­pul­sively. The book has but two sim­ple in­ten­tions: to tell some il­lu­mi­nat­ing sto­ries, and to ask whether we have all gone com­pletely nuts.

It is the most pre­cious non-re­new­able re­source known to hu­mankind. No mat­ter how rich you are, you can never buy more time, for there is no place that sells it. You’re never get­ting back these mo­ments you’re choos­ing to spend, right now, read­ing a news­pa­per review of a book about some­thing that de­fines your life. (Thanks for do­ing so; it’s an hon­our.)

Garfield opens with a per­sonal anec­dote about an in­ci­dent two years ago where time seemed to slow down. He fell from his bi­cy­cle and broke his el­bow. “I thought I could feel ev­ery gran­ule of time,” he re­calls of wait­ing in a dark­ened hospi­tal room, bored and await­ing surgery. Later, he de­cided to waste a lot of time on his iPhone while re­cov­er­ing, by look­ing up old films on YouTube.

From that hospi­tal bed fol­lows a swift trip into the past, ex­plor­ing how the French repub­li­cans messed up the cal­en­dar by at­tempt­ing to set their own time; how cross-coun­try rail­ways led to the in­ven­tion of stan­dard­ised timeta­bles and time zones; how nos­tal­gia be­came the first dis­ease to be as­so­ci­ated with time, its “suf­fer­ers” des­tined for the mad­house; how the metronome was “as rev­o­lu­tion­ary to Beethoven as the mi­cro­scope was to 17th-cen­tury bac­te­ri­ol­o­gists” as it af­forded ul­ti­mate steadi­ness to com­posers who had pre­vi­ously strug­gled to no­tate tempo.

By the author’s ad­mis­sion, Time­keep­ers is largely an ex­am­i­na­tion of time through a cul­tural lens. This works well as it al­lows Garfield to dip in and out of key mo­ments in history with­out fol­low­ing a strict chronol­ogy. He spends a fair bit of time with watch­mak­ers, ev­i­dently fas­ci­nated by this world, par­tic­u­larly the minute ways in which com­pa­nies such as Rolex and TAG Heuer at­tempt to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from their com­peti­tors.

Garfield is par­tic­u­larly taken by a clever bit of ad copy­writ­ing that sug­gests you never ac­tu­ally own a Patek Philippe watch, you merely look af­ter it for the next gen­er­a­tion. He notes that the sell­ing of watches seems to be keep­ing print jour­nal­ism alive: “Open The New York Times and the pa­per ap­pears to be tick­ing.” He sug­gests men tend to ad­mire watches so much be­cause of the re­lent­less en­durance with min­i­mum lu­bri­ca­tion.

Near the end of the book, when dis­cussing the no­tion of ‘‘deep time’’ that ge­ol­o­gists deal with, he turns the ad copy on its head by sug­gest­ing that “deep time is a ge­ol­o­gist’s equiv­a­lent of the Patek Philippe ad­vert: you never ac­tu­ally live on the Earth, you merely look af­ter it for the next species or ice age”.

From wry so­cial ob­ser­va­tions to zoomed-out, big-pic­ture sum­maries of the pas­sage of time and our place in the uni­verse, Time­keep­ers has it all. Garfield is a charm­ing and well-read tour guide, and the foot­notes are al­ways worth a look, if only for a se­lec­tion of gags he col­lected dur­ing his re­search, such as the one where Big Ben says to the Lean­ing Tower of Pisa, “I’ve got the time if you’ve got the in­cli­na­tion.”

Per­haps the big­gest ques­tion of all is a sim­ple one: why? Why spend sev­eral hours read­ing a book about time, when it seems to be the one thing most of us wish we had more of? Speak­ing for my­self, I’m glad that I in­vested those hours in the com­pany of Garfield’s end­less cu­rios­ity and good hu­mour. Time­keep­ers is noth­ing less than ed­u­ca­tional and en­ter­tain­ing, and read­ing its pages is a fine way to spend one’s time. and author. is a Bris­bane-based jour­nal­ist

The Per­sis­tence of Mem­ory, by Sal­vador Dali

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