Against our time-is-money culture, Jenny Odell looks for a different way of conceptualizing the clock.
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, by Jenny Odell, Random House, 364 pages, $28.99
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After the election in 2016, Jenny Odell started a daily ritual of walking from her apartment in Oakland to a nearby park. “I’d just sit there. And although I felt a bit guilty about how incongruous it seemed—beautiful garden versus terrifying world—it really did feel necessary, like a survival tactic.” She relayed this to an audience at the 2017 EYEO festival in Minneapolis.
From that talk emerged the best-selling manifesto How to Do Nothing, an elegant Bartleby-esque refusal of the relentless news cycle, the productivity imperative, social media’s commercial churn, and the suffocating soul death of it all. Odell called for a deepening awareness of place, often referred to as bioregionalism: “weaving oneself into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem.” It’s a familiar practice in many Indigenous cultures, recognizing that we don’t live on land—we live with it, and with the manzanita, the gray pines, the San Andreas Fault, and with the crows, scrub jays, towhees, and night herons.
That was in the spring of 2019. And then, a year passed; it was spring again, and the world had changed. In hindsight, the book feels like a preparatory manual, though Odell couldn’t have known how much birdwatching we were going to do or how desperate we’d be for survival tactics.
Now she has written Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. Because, as some readers of How to Do Nothing had pointed out, if they were to expand their attention, they needed time to do it, and Odell, like many, harbors a “deep suspicion that we are living on the wrong clock,” one oriented around transaction and pain: “time as money, climate dread, or fear of dying.” Odell believes there is another way.
In her wide-ranging treatise, with chapters like “Whose Time, Whose Money?” and “Can There Be Leisure?,” Odell explores the Anthropocene, the experience economy, and bootstrapper culture. She invokes Hannah Arendt’s conception of “non-time”—a space between remembrance and anticipation. This is what writers and intellectuals experienced in WWII when they joined the Resistance. It’s what occurred when isolated housewives started to talk, organize, and agitate. Throughout the chapters, Odell threads dispatches from a daylong road trip, starting with a drive to the Port of Oakland, continuing down the peninsula to an open-space preserve, and later across the Bay to the Prelinger Library in San Francisco.
People have been marking and sensing time forever, using devices like sundials and clepsydras, or water clocks, but as it turns out, our current trappings—such as time zones and the wage, by which one’s time is rented by an employer—are fairly recent developments, originating with industrialization. Odell digs into that questionable practice known as time management and the legacy of historical “productivity bros.” She starts with Frederick Winslow Taylor, who, as a boy, would count his own steps and later honed his zeal for so-called efficiency at a steelworks in the 1870s.
Taylorism continued to flourish and mutate, with twentieth-century time-study men recording how long it took to settle paper in a stack or walk to a drinking fountain or swivel in a chair. But that is hardly efficiency. Read enough about metrics, about the obsession to quantify, and it’s clear these aren’t the smartest people rigging up our commodified, points-driven world, just the most compulsive—fools in the thrall of scarcity, chopping our days into keystrokes. It might be merely absurd if people weren’t dying in Amazon warehouses.
My mind is quick to take a grim turn, but that’s not Odell’s tendency. She states early on that this book is a “panoramic assault on nihilism,” a refusal of declinism, or the belief in certain doom. Still, it can be hard to outfox the bleak. Writing about time leads inevitably to writing about the accelerating pace of climate change.
On a hike, the author stops at a pond she remembers and discovers it’s gone dry, “something I’ve never seen,” she writes. Later, walking along the coast, she spots a dead grebe. Then another. She scrolls through news stories about seabird die-offs, and I think of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, on her quest to the “Green Place” of her youth, driving the big rig past attackers, through the desert, the sandstorm, that caustic, denuded bog, only to learn that the ghastly wasteland was the “Green Place,” and then she sinks into the sand and screams.
“I thought I might be depressed,” Odell writes. This is at a dinner with friends, before the pandemic. Scream, please scream, I think. And when she does scream it’s in a dream. This is September 9, 2020, the day the sky over the Bay turned orange from wildfire smoke.
And yet this is a hopeful book. It’s earnest, inquisitive, occasionally melancholy, but steadfast in its mission—to see time as something other than “a linear story of the encroachment of capitalist time,” something weirder and blobby, flowing and alive, like lava. The early chapters can get weedy with quotations from other writers, descriptions of influencer videos, and accounts of visiting websites like Glassdoor, but eventually Odell leaves the studies and the screens and goes to the rocks.
She climbs down onto a gravel beach, where the pebbles “are two things at once: seafloor from the last ice age, and future sand.” The geologist Marcia Bjornerud has a term for this kind of double exposure, in which the past is still present in the earth: “This impression is a glimpse not of timelessness but timefulness, an acute consciousness of how the world is made by—indeed, made of—time.” I find this immensely soothing—to be released from human timescales. But while tripping out on geologic temporality might be enough for me, Odell has farther to go.
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. One way, which I’ve tried to outline so far, is to recover the contingencies of the past and the present. Another is to shift your temporal center of gravity by looking to those whose worlds have already ended many times over.
For Māori climate activists or residents of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, the apocalypse has already arrived. The word comes from the Greek apokalypsis, which means “through the concealed,” suggesting not the end of the world but a vision of what has been hidden.
A visit to a friend’s vegetable garden sends Odell away with bags of lettuce—this is a favor to the friend, who needs to remove the outside leaves of the plant so it can keep growing. “Would it be possible,” Odell wonders, “not to save and spend time, but to garden it—by saving, inventing, and stewarding different rhythms of life?” The book grows dense again, with histories of Lakota temporal practices, resistance to Daylight Savings, and magazines from alienated office workers.
How to Do Nothing concluded with gratitude, a reliably satisfying and clear note. Odell does not do that here. Early on in Saving Time she embraces the dissonance between “the everyday and the apocalyptic,” and by the end she returns to another liminal space. “To want something at all, to love something and fear its disappearance,” Odell writes, “is to dwell in that gap between past and future.” At the edge of a lagoon, she stands, watching the tide come in, rippling with possibility and change.
Liz Brown is the author of Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, frieze, London Review of Books, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and elsewhere.