5 History Books that Changed How I See Time

I’m trying to put together a reading list of books across fiction and nonfiction genres that have somehow shaped the way I perceive and think about time, not just spiritually but intellectually and creatively. When it’s finished in the coming months, I’ll post the list here and on Goodreads–perhaps we can start a Time Eternal book club!

I’ll start with books from the realm of history. Which means that some of these may be a bit dense for folks who are more into pleasure reading, but will certainly appeal to the history buffs out there.

I start with history because it was during my PhD in that field I first began to actually study the phenomenon of time and time perception. 

In fact, I remember the exact moment my graduate studies veered off into the nebulous topic of time: I was walking across the campus of my alma mater and antique clock tower began tolling 3 o’ clock. It can’t be quite that late, I reasoned–I was running from the library to a three pm class with a particularly punctual professor, a route I had timed perfectly to get me to the classroom at 3:00 sharp. I knew I had five more minutes. Sure enough, my cell phone verified it was only 2:55. Whew. 

My relief was short-lived, however, as I began to question which time was “correct”–that of the clock tower or my phone? And who got to decide whether I was late for class–me or my professor?

And how did all of this come to be? I suddenly wondered. How did history develop in such a way as to build a society governed by clocks and calendars in the first place? Time, timekeeping, clocks, calendars–that is, the means by which we ultimately measure history–itself had to have a history.

I think grappling with that reality opened the door for me to consider other modes of time–liturgical time, for instance. Particularly as I began to experience time in an Orthodox setting.

So… Five histories that have changed how I see time.

  

Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, History of the Hour: Clocks and Modern Temporal Orders (Chicago University Press, 1996)

The 1400s marked the rise of mechanical clocks, first to mark times of prayer in monastic centers and later to regulate commercial and ecclesiastical schedules in urban areas. Dohrn-van Rossum’s book is a primer on the ways clocks, while initially rooted in a Christian cosmology, would go on to evoke a distinctly Western, industrial time consciousness that is still at work today. 

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (University of California Press, 1987)

Anyone who’s watched their fair share of BBC period dramas based in the 19th century knows that the invention of rail travel changed things (and yes, BBC period dramas are real life). It’s obvious that trains compressed space–making longer distances easier to travel–but it also compressed and accelerated the social sense of time, and necessitated its standardization. Previously, timekeeping had been a much more localized phenomenon–the exact time of day could differ between villages even very close together. The rise of train travel, however, transformed time and the social structures that surrounded it into a social rather than local commodity.  “In their railway journeys nineteenth-century people encountered the new conditions of their lives,” writes Alan Trachtenberg in the foreword of the 2014 edition of this book. “They encountered themselves as moderns, as dwellers within new structures of regulation and need.”

Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006)

 

If you’ve never read about the history of how people lived at night, this is an engaging, almost lyrical introduction to the topic (I also like Koslofsky’s Evening’s Empire and Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night). Prior to modernity, with its reliance on electric lighting, the night represented a wholly other kind of time. The beliefs and superstitions people had about darkness, the curfews and other strictures that limited nocturnal activity in urban areas, the different sleep cycles pre-modern people seem to have had–these all shaped people’s attitude toward not only the night, but also the day, and time as a whole. From the back cover: “Fear of crime, of fire, and of the supernatural; the importance of moonlight; the increased incidence of sickness and death at night; evening gatherings to spin wool and stories; masqued balls; inns, taverns, and brothels; the strategies of thieves, assassins, and conspirators; the protective uses of incantations, meditations, and prayers; the nature of our predecessors’ sleep and dreams―Ekirch reveals all these and more in his ‘monumental study’ (The Nation) of sociocultural history, ‘maintaining throughout an infectious sense of wonder’ (Booklist).” 

Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012)

 

What does history look like? How do you draw time? These are the questions with which this book begins. The answer, at least in so far as Western civilization is concerned, is the timeline. But how did this concept of “drawing time” come to be? This book shows that, as straightforward (literally) as our modern notion of chronology may seem, it is not a given, nor is it as simplistic or “objective” as we may assume. With lots of images, this book captures how societies of the past sought to draw time, and how these evolved into what we now recognize as a timeline.  

Denis Feeney, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (University of California Press, 2008)

 

The roots of our current civil calendar (whether the Julian or Gregorian, old or new calendar) lies in the Roman Empire. Ancient Rome was a fascinating mix of agrarian, natural time structures and much more elaborate, highly developed calendars and time-keeping methods. “Roman time structures,” writes Feeney, “are premodern and modern at once.” How an extensive and extending empire straddled the tension implicit in timekeeping, indeed how our own calendar and historical concepts of BC/AD evolved out of antiquity, is fascinating. Making this book an even more enjoyable read is that Feeney avoids historical inevitability–the idea that modernity and modern time norms were somehow inevitable–as well as reducing Roman concepts of time down to strictly “linear” and “cyclical” perceptions. The result is a nuanced journey that explores takes Rome and its timekeeping on its own terms.    

 

What books–novels, non-fiction, plays–have shaped the way you think about time?

5 comments:

  1. I think that both Tolstoy and Shakespeare are interesting examples of time in storytelling. In both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, time seems to both telescope and compress at the service of the story. In Anna Karenina (my favorite classic novel) there’s is a languidity that is in constant opposition to the dread feeling of inevitability as Anna rushes past several opportunities to repent. In Hamlet the time is in constant flux. From the wedding feast, taking place a few weeks after the death of old King Hamlet, to the tragic ending, the play seems to be almost ‘out of time’. It is nearly impossible to unravel the passage of time in Shakespeare’s longest and most complicated play. But in spite of its complications, it’s generally considered his best, and it’s my favorite.

  2. Well thank you… now the stack of unread library books on my nightstand can be expanded by two or three volumes. 😉

    (The night time one and the timeline one seem especially interesting to me.)

  3. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is itself a fascinating exploration of time and existentialism in the world
    of Hamlet.

    Logitude, by Dava Sobel, is a terrific look at the early days of setting a world time for the purposes of navigation.

    1. So funny, Skip! I just saw this comment–and I just started reading Longitude two days ago! I’ll be adding that book to another book roundup post 🙂 It is pretty good. It would pair really well with Umberto Eco’s novel Island of the Day Before.

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