Simon Garfield On World’s Obsession With Time

Esteemed journalist and author of 15+ non-fiction titles, Simon Garfield gave a talk on his latest book Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed with Time at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Given such a vast subject to write about by his editor, Garfield was faced with a huge challenge: of where to start, what grounds to cover, what is more and less important. Eventually, he decided to go through the last 250 years – some may say the start of modern civilization – and examine our relationship with time then and now.

And so Garfield starts with the French revolution, in the 1790s, when the French reinvented the calendar in agricultural terms, against the Christian tradition, thus renamed the days, and even went so far as to change the hours and minutes in a day – 10 hours a day, 100 minutes in an hour. This came to be short-lived, not least because Napoleon Bonaparte banned it.

Then, switching to the personal, Simon sums up his conclusion from a nasty cycling accident that breaks his right arm and leaves him temporarily disabled: ‘A single man can change one’s appreciation of time’. This accident leaves him with recurring thoughts on our modern perception of time and how it came about to rule us. He poignantly dwelled on the innumerable holiday images that are thrown at us, where vacationers are lying down on a beach having drinks and time seems to have stopped or at least slowed down, whereas we’re trying to catch up with the speed of our daily Western lives.

We have become so obsessed with the catching up game that the word “time” is now the most commonly used noun in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Furthermore, “year” and “day” are also in the top five, and phrases like “last time”, “reading time” and “quality time” are constant in our speech.

Garfield throws many stories at us, making us consider the evolution of this obsession with time that gives us never-ending anxiety and instils fear for every minute that hasn’t been accounted for, which explains the existence of 2 million Smartphone time-management apps that promise to save you time.

In Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed with Time, one finds out about the four-minute mile (Roger Bannister’s running record at 1954), about the longest filibusterer of all times, who managed a record of 24 hours and 18 minutes in an anti-civil rights campaign, about Einstein’s notion of time slipping through our fingers, about slow food and the ultramodern obsession of Danish living ‘hygge’, and the list goes on.

To counteract this grimness of time going ever so fast, Garfield closes with a quote made by the cosmologist Carl Sagan after seeing the Earth as a pale blue dot from 6 billion kilometres distance in 1990:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”.

Reminiscent of Bill Bryson’s curious style, with Timekeepers Garfield delivers an exciting bite of a history lesson in re-making the notorious argument of modern time eating us away with a touch of storytelling. It’s a well-recommended read.