Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

‘We work all hours so that we may eventually work less. We have invented quality time to distinguish it from that other time.’

Many of us are obsessed with time. People like me, for whom punctuality is a virtue of the first order, are continually dismayed and occasionally stressed by those for whom time is a relaxed, relative concept. We measure time, apportion it across the tasks we need to complete, try to allocate enough for human functions like eating and sleeping and, if there is any minute left unallocated, find some other activity with which to fill it. Or, perhaps that is just me?

‘Timekeepers’ was a perfect read for me. It gave me some insight into how (and why) we’ve become fixated on increasingly accurate measures of time. I learned about the French Revolutionary Calendar (and having read about it, can understand why I’d never heard of it before), found out more about the art and science involved in watchmaking than I’ll ever need to know, and wondered about the timing that Beethoven really wanted for his 9th Symphony.

Mr Garfield has included a lot of interesting information in this book. While I knew about US Senator Strom Thurmond’s 24 hour 18 minute speech in August 1957, I didn’t know that the Beatles recorded their first LP (excluding the singles) in less than one day in 1963. There is information as well about developments in recording music: those of us old enough to have heard recordings on the old 78 rpm records will know how much has changed!

‘Time once passive is now aggressive. It dominates our lives in ways that the earliest clockmakers would have surely found unbearable.’

As I read this book, I wondered about a few aspects of timekeeping. When did accuracy become so important? Was it necessary before the advent of train timetables? Has increasingly accurate measure of time driven timetabling, or is it the other way around? Is the level of accuracy in timekeeping required for (say) aircraft and train scheduling as important in other aspects of life?

I was reminded, too, how time can feel different. If you’ve waited in an emergency ward, or waited for a telephone call, minutes can feel like hours. If you’ve been in an accident, it often feels like everything is happening in slow motion. On the other hand, if you’ve been to an enjoyable event, hours seem to pass like minutes. Yes, I guess that time can be relative as well as absolute.

I really enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in time, and how we measure it.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Canongate Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith