The Current·Q&A

Racing against the clock? This author says the way we talk about it is shaping our relationship with time

In her new book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, author and artist Jenny Odell explores society’s relationship with time, how we measure it, and whether language, culture and nature can give us a different way to appreciate the passing moments.

In Saving Time, Jenny Odell explore a different way of thinking about time

A close-up view of the hands of a clock, as seen in a watchmaker's shop in Bordeaux, France, in January 2018.
The hands of a clock are pictured on a wall clock in a watchmaker's shop in Bordeaux, France. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

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In her newest book, artist and author Jenny Odell wants readers to think about something they might take for granted: time.

"That's something that I've been kind of obsessed with for a long time, both as an artist and a writer," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Released earlier this month, Odell writes in the prologue that she initially wrote the book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, to be helpful to others, "but toward the end, I felt I was writing it to save my life."

The feeling of racing against the clock, day after day, felt "paralyzing," she told Galloway. So in writing the book — particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when each day blew into the next — she was looking for new ways to think about time.

Odell spoke to Galloway about what she learned about time in writing and researching this book, and how language, culture and nature can shape the way we think about time. Here's part of their conversation.

Jenny Odell looks into the camera.
Jenny Odell, author of Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. (Chani Bockwinkel)

One of the things that's really neat about this book is how you talk about language…. What was interesting to you about that? Because there's the title Saving Time, but then you talk about "killing time," "time well spent." 

I've always been really interested in language. But I'm also coming to it with the perspective of an artist because art also deals in language.

Some of my favourite art, I would say, either provides a lens on reality — or you could say it gives you a vocabulary for something in reality that, ideally, after you have that experience, the world sort of doesn't look the same anymore. 

The other metaphor that I use a lot is that I have a jeweller's [magnifying] loupe that I carry with me everywhere ... and I use it to look at all kinds of things. 

I am able to see things about the built environment, in this case — or about the natural environment — that I couldn't have seen before. It definitely changes my understanding of where I am and, I think, it enriches it.

If you talk about vocabulary, how could speaking and thinking differently about time change how we are governed by time?

One example would be the fact that when we speak the language of "time is money," then you get this idea that everybody has 24 identical hours in a day, and that your job in life is to squeeze the most value out of those 24 hours. Similar to a factory manager who's working with materials or workers. 

In that scheme, the sense that you got is "I have my 24 hours, you have your 24 hours. Those hours are unrelated…. Our time can only interact transactionally. So if I give you some, I have less, you have more."

And there's a moment in the middle of the book where I describe a friend of mine who's in her 70s, giving me some lettuce, insisting that I take some lettuce from her, which she was gardening.

At the time, it was hard for me to understand that she actually needed to give me the outer leaves of the lettuce for it to keep growing in the way that she wanted.

There are these pockets of other ways of reckoning time, other ways of practising things in time, that have survived and are evolving, maybe.-Jenny Odell, author and artist

[It was] just this notion that if she gives me some, we both have more; and just how unintuitive that idea was for me because I've grown up in this culture where everything feels very transactional.

I think it opens up the possibility of thinking beyond that individualistic sense of like, "I have my time and my time bank," and more like, "What could we do together in a co-ordinated way that would actually make time feel different for everyone involved in that coordination?"

There are cultural variants on time, right? Your mom's from the Philippines. Talk about this and how this comes out in the book, how different cultures have different senses of time.

On a really basic level, it's just a really great illustration of that idea of the language.

So when I was asking around in my family — like, what is the Filipino time? — the consensus seemed to be one to two hours late with respect to dominant time, the culturally-dominant sense of time where ... one shows up at the time that is listed. 

A book sits on top of a circular desk. The book cover reads in bold, white fond "Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock - Jenny Odell."
In Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Odell explores society’s relationship with time. (Kate Cornick/CBC)

But then I go on to note that if you have a bunch of people who are all on Filipino time, then it's not Filipino time anymore. It's just time. So it kind of illustrates this notion similar to language that the way that you organize and observe time is a social agreement and it always has been. 

I think it's also a really nice example of the fact that there are these pockets of other ways of reckoning time, other ways of practising things in time, that have survived and are evolving, maybe.

You talk in the book about what nature can teach you about time, and whether it's looking at concrete or rocks or cedar wax wings. What do you learn about time from nature?

If you spend time observing it at any level, you will inevitably start to notice changes. 

So one example for me has been birdwatching. I've noticed that over the last six or seven years, I feel like it went from something that felt kind of not static; it's like you see an image in a book and then you see the bird and you check it off your list.

And I feel like my attention has evolved to the point of noticing, first of all, just like moment to moment, what [the birds are] doing … but then also things like what time of year.

Especially here where people say the Bay Area doesn't have seasons…. but if you are paying attention, you realize that like, OK, well maybe we don't have four seasons, but things are changing all the time — and if you're looking at it in this minute way, you can really see those changes happening materially. 

I just think that that's an important way of accessing this fact, that everything around us is also expressing time. I think that just something like walking around with the loupe for me is a reminder that everything around me and myself included, is all involved in these interwoven processes of change that I think are what time actually is.

Produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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