Book World reviews 'Time' by Eva Hoffman

(Courtesy Of Picador Usa - Courtesy Of Picador Usa)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Carolyn See
Friday, January 1, 2010


By Eva Hoffman

Picador. 214 pp. Paperback, $14

"Time," a collection of four essays on that subject by Eva Hoffman, is an exceptionally chic-looking little book. The cover design is svelte and cool, extremely attractive in a non-representative way. In the upper left corner, above the title and the author's name, comes this information: "Time" is part of the "Big Ideas//small books" series. What a delicious concept! You can read about "big ideas," your image as an intellectual will be elegantly and unobtrusively bolstered, but you don't have to haul around that 10-pound Modern Library edition of "The Idiot" to prove your point. You can put "Time" in your pocket; you can store it in your purse. You can read it at your convenience.

Now have I wasted time, writing that first paragraph? I have only a certain number of words to spend here, and I only recently received an irate letter from a reader who opined that I never learned to write a lead paragraph in my life. So maybe I did waste time. Maybe the words in this review will slow time down to an excruciating stagnation for you. Maybe I'll run out of space (and time!) before I'm finished. Maybe I'm irredeemably stuck in slow time rather than fast time, a cultural anomaly, because isn't America, along with Britain, supposed to be one of the fastest cultures in the world? I don't know, and I have a suspicion that Eva Hoffman, for all her considerable learning and intellectual good intentions, may not know, either.

"Time" begins the way a book like this should: It contrives to be both edifying and a little unreadable, as in, "Our experience of temporality is becoming increasingly deterritorialised and virtual." This could also be written: "We now cross time zones in airplanes and use computers a lot." Or, as Hoffman puts it, "Time gives us our existential premise, and coming to terms with it is equivalent to grappling with the great questions." Which, of course, is what she is trying to do. What she doesn't ever say here is that grappling with those great questions can leave you gasping and panting like a dog on a treadmill. We can't get to the future until it becomes the present, which in turn slips immediately into the past, and despite the best efforts of serious artists and grudge-holding relatives who never let us forget a single bad thing we've ever done, that past is irrevocably gone; nothing can retrieve it.

All this does raise some great questions. "Who knows where the time goes?" as Nina Simone sang. The answer is, unfortunately, nobody knows, or if they do know, they're not telling.

So Hoffman must content herself with dancing around the subject in these four essays: "Time and the Body," "Time and the Mind," "Time and Culture" and "Time in Our Time." The first essay proceeds for a while as if it were written by the driest of intellectuals, but Hoffman has a motherly dearness about her, and soon the essay turns into solid advice about sleep: "Things happen while we sleep, some of them of considerable importance. There has been speculation that one crucial purpose of sleep states is to enable the brain to store new information into long-term memory." Her digression about sleep -- which, it can certainly be argued, happens "out of time," at least for the sleeper -- lasts for 10 pages. Then Hoffman remembers, almost nostalgically, what it was like to live in a communist society, her native Poland, when time had slowed because there was nothing much to look forward to. At least there was enough time, she recalls, for long lunches.

"Time and the Mind" pulls out some more intellectual truisms: "Time works through the bodies of all creatures, but only we know that it does so, that it has an existence -- however immaterial -- outside ourselves." But then her personal memories (most welcome!) come in again. "We all know people who have great trouble getting out of the house . . . or who are known for staying at a party till the bitter end, or until they are thrown out." And we see the author -- not as a philosopher, but as a character in her own life -- bemused and amused, watching her fellow human beings, having some measured fun.

"Time and Culture" is too short, and also the one essay that slips most into familiar journalistic territory. She makes predictable fun of efficiency experts, deplores multitasking and our myriad time-saving gadgets and makes the predictable distinction between Western and African time. The former accepts the premise that there really is an objective "time" and that we can be "on time" for something. African time is a direction, an approximation, something like next week. People who live by different sets of time naturally have little but scorn for each other.

In "Time in Our Time," the author once again explores the concept of "fast" and "slow" time. The irony, of course, is that the more events we pack into a chunk of time, the less likely we are to remember them. Another way of cheating time is to experiment with drugs, and Hoffman dutifully writes, "The drug subculture persists at the cultural margins into our own period, although these days the young turn to Ecstasy and other pill cocktails, while cocaine is the substance of choice for the upwardly mobile, and is as likely to be taken to boost performance in the hyper-speeded sectors of the financial profession as for the mystical experience of timelessness." Something about this sounds suspiciously like my mom asking about my younger sister in the old days, "Is she on top?" (instead of pot). In other words, Hoffman, even as she wrestles gallantly with existential questions, seems a little bit out of it. "Time," unexpectedly, turns out to be less a meditation on time than an inadvertent character portrait of a very learned and terribly sweet woman.

This Sunday in Outlook

-- Let's dance with David Bowie.

-- Fidel Castro's ex-friend tells all.

-- The education of a black radical.

-- The politics of mass murder.

-- And a visit to the department of mad scientists.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company