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A collection of tools designed to help us make our time our own again

In ‘Saving Time,’ her follow-up to ‘How to Do Nothing,’ Jenny Odell invites us to reconsider both the times we’re living through and the way we let time pass

Constructing clocks at Electric Time Company in Medfield, Mass. Jenny Odell urges readers to think about time differently, using examples from Indigenous, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial thinkers. (Charles Krupa/AP)
5 min

A professor of mine once told me that having a job is just saying, “When I get through this week, everything will calm down” every week, for the rest of your life. Time has become something we must simply survive, over and over again. The units may change — “this week” could be a day or a month or a semester — but we’re always oriented toward a horizon that we can never reach. Time is money and we never have enough, always grinding through one more project, one more long day, in search of time that is purely our own.

While this situation may not be new, it feels increasingly unsustainable, in no small part because we are also living alongside the reality of climate change. We are burning out while the Earth is burning, and we are also, with every passing minute, growing older and closer to death. In her newest book, “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock,” Jenny Odell traces the path that brought us to this existential crossroads. In the process, she attempts to give us tools to leave these conceptions of time behind. It’s an ambitious project that takes on time-management self-help, climate nihilism, our fear of dying and the grind of corporate life, ultimately asking us to see time itself through different lenses.

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“Saving Time” is neither a self-help guide to time management nor a robust cultural history of productivity. It ends up falling somewhere in between: a softer polemic coupled with a collection of “conceptual tools” to consider “what ‘your time’ has to do with the time you live in.” Odell uses these tools, mostly examples from Indigenous, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial thinkers, to show us that time has not always been this way, hoping that in doing so she can show us that we can live a little differently.

Odell is an artist and a writer, not a historian, so her line of inquiry always begins with noticing. “Saving Time” is threaded with her own experience of paying deep attention to the place she is in. The book opens with a meditation on moss in her apartment, and in each chapter, there’s a parallel journey, a handful of italicized paragraphs that break up the text, typically along with photos. These take us from the Port of Oakland to a funeral home and crematory, hitting highways and beaches and public malls along the way. Here form and content come together: If Odell wants us to see time anew, she’s doing her best to show us what that might look like, how one moment is intimately connected to many others. The book becomes more collage than polemic, bringing many fragments together to see what emerges.

This is not to say that “Saving Time” is under-researched — in fact, it may have the opposite problem. Odell is a wide-ranging reader, and her writing bounces from citation to citation, sometimes in the service of questions that, while generative, can feel tangential. As she shows, the problem of contemporary time is tied to structures of colonialism and capitalism, as well as to issues that touch on environmentalism, the coronavirus pandemic and theories of space — matters whose scope is so extensive that the discussions are almost perennially vague. Her chapter on personal time management, for example, moves from the Protestant work ethic to what she calls “productivity bros” to the standardized A-F grading system to eugenics and scientific racism. Of course, all of these things are tied to the logic of optimization of free time that Odell is tracing, but her writing relies on so many overlapping frameworks of thinking that it lacks the focus we need to understand what exactly we might do differently.

The necessary abstraction that comes with any discussion of time makes the potential takeaways even slipperier: In one section, Odell invites us to “halve time,” to “make a cut in chronos and hold the past and the future apart as much as hope will allow,” pointing to “chronos,” the ancient Greek word for linear time. Though that’s beautifully written, it’s hard to say with any precision what making a cut in chronos would do for our collective lives — or what it would even entail. Elsewhere, she suggests that you should “hallucinate a scenario, hallucinate yourself in it,” in response to climate nihilism. “Then tell me what you see.”

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It is here, at the overlapping borders of the personal and the political, that we brush up against the limitations of the hybrid history/manifesto/field guide to contemporary life that Odell has produced. Is the problem that we’re trying to be productive, having ingested a capitalist logic of time, or is it that the world we live in simply doesn’t support any other vision of time? “Saving Time” is so steeped in the current moment that it’s hard to imagine it as a resource to the future. It’s never quite clear whether fixing our conception of time could help shape a radical social change, or whether we’re waiting for a social shift that can soothe our harried lives.

In her critique of the time-management self-help genre, Odell writes that “even seemingly practical self-help can read as an invitation to find a niche in a brutal world and wait for the storm to pass you over.” The book itself never quite seems to escape that dilemma. Odell has woven a wide-ranging tapestry of scholars, activists and artists, adding her own experience. But if you want to figure out what it all means for you, you’ll have to do that on your own time.

Bekah Waalkes is a writer and PhD candidate in English literature at Tufts University.

Saving Time

Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock

By Jenny Odell

Random House. 364 pp. $28.99

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