The intruder entered not through the door but through the window. Silently, it began making a home in the cool damp of Jenny Odell’s kitchen, in a pig-shaped planter. The moss spores arrived in the spring that Odell began working on her book “Saving Time” (Random House). For the next three years, she and the moss shared air and sunlight as she wrote at the kitchen table, the rhizoids that grabbed at the soil taking root in her imagination. “It has been a reminder of time,” she writes about her unlikely companion. “Not the monolithic, empty substance imagined to wash over each of us alone, but the kind that starts and stops, bubbles up, collects in the cracks, and folds into mountains. It is the kind that waits for the right conditions, that holds always the ability to begin something new.”
Odell’s work has a knack for finding the right conditions and anchoring itself in them. Her previous book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” (2019), became a surprise best-seller, raising an alarm about how social media had fractured our capacity for deep focus and corralled us into relentless self-optimization. Although a glut of books on attention were vying for our own, hers stood out—not for the originality of its argument, I suspect, but for the sincerity of her persona on the page. Here was a multidisciplinary artist for whom the Internet was a native landscape; now she was teaching herself to see her surroundings, to notice more—more birds, more flowers—and claiming far-reaching consequences for simple acts of awareness. Looking up, looking around is the “seed of responsibility,” she argued. It was the prelude to enlarging one’s notion of community and our obligations to it.
In “Saving Time,” with moss as muse, Odell deepens her approach and amplifies her pitch. She wrote this book to save her life, she explains, as she struggled to understand why the world came to be organized for profit and not for human or ecological thriving. She charts how clocks emerged as “tools of domination”: the standardization of time by church bells, then by the nineteenth-century railroads; the colonial mission of using labor as a “civilizing” force; and the ways that time has been progressively commodified and disciplined, from the factories of the early twentieth century to the floors of contemporary Amazon warehouses. A capitalist, Western notion of profit and efficiency has stamped out other, more salutary and less linear measures of time, she argues, as she draws passionately if vaguely on Indigenous conceptions of time. Modernity has pulled us out of synch with nature and the needs of our bodies; it has depleted our inner and outer worlds.
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Odell approaches these matters with acute sensitivity and feeling. And yet a larger question persists. Why does a book so concerned with the looming issues of our day, and possessed of such an urgent authorial voice, feel like such a time sink?
“Saving Time” joins a ripening genre—on burnout, on the depletion of working and parenting during the pandemic, on the “great resignation”—that champions the revolutionary potential of rest. Human attention is presented as an endangered public resource, befouled by the attention economy, tech companies, virtual workplaces, Slack notifications. To lose the capacity for deep, sustained focus is to lose everything, we’re told—it is to insure loss after loss. We fiddle with our phones while the world burns. Indeed, “attention” seems to occupy the space that “empathy” once did, when President Obama warned of an “empathy deficit” and critics made fervent claims about reading novels as a way to understand other points of view. Columnists still prescribe novels, but as a way to retrieve our concentration. In one recent book, Sheila Liming’s “Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time,” we’re told that unstructured social time, freed from the pressures of productivity, could save our souls. Then, there’s the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a critical influence on Odell’s work and the author of “Braiding Sweetgrass”—which has spent more than two years on the best-seller lists—who argues that “our attention has been hijacked by our economy, by marketers saying you should be paying attention to consumption, you should be paying attention to violence, political division.”
Kimmerer has playfully envisioned a world in which Fox News was about actual foxes: “What if we had storytelling mechanisms that said it is important that you know about the well-being of wildlife in your neighborhood? That that’s newsworthy? This beautiful gift of attention that we human beings have is being hijacked to pay attention to products and someone else’s political agenda. Whereas if we can reclaim our attention and pay attention to things that really matter, there a revolution starts.” We hear similar appeals in recent work by Rebecca Solnit and, going back, by Annie Dillard, even D. H. Lawrence—the notion that tending to an actual garden can make us fitter stewards of our minds and, ultimately, our world.
Such writers often enact the kind of attention they cherish, employing language rich and precise, filled with moments of languor and epiphany. But Odell marches us along, gesturing to choppy outlines of the books she consults to piece together the story. Her own thinking feels curiously muted. Odell taught digital art at Stanford for almost ten years and frequently works with collage. Her method, she has said, involves putting different objects next to one another and “seeing what happens”—items from a local dump, for example, that she displays along with notes about their origins. In this book, however, her collages produce not surprise or poignance but a sense of cutting and pasting, of breathless summary. In his novel “Slowness,” Milan Kundera describes “a secret bond” between slowness and remembering, and, conversely, between speed and forgetting. A man walking down the street tries to recall something; without realizing it, he slows down. Another man, recalling an unpleasant episode, begins to walk faster, as if creating distance from the memory, trying to outpace it. I recalled these lines while trying to keep up with Odell. Why is this book about time in such a hurry?
Perhaps her hope is to rush past the fact that so many of her observations are commonplaces. The “modern view of time can’t be extricated from the wage relationship,” she reports, as if the knowledge were hard-won. As I read, I told myself that some hidden seams would surely be discovered, fresh evidence brought forth, complacencies unravelled; Odell seems to hint as much, hailing the benefits of dissonance and doubt. (“Simply as a gap in the known, doubt can be the emergency exit that leads somewhere else.”) Instead, we are led down a path of truisms to a well-padded account of how the capitalist logic of increase squeezes dignity from our days. “Accepting a life with less of a certain type of ambition is not the same as settling for a life with less meaning,” Odell writes.
“Look at my floor!”Cartoon by Robert LeightonCopy link to cartoonCopy link to cartoon
Moss grows through division; the hasty chapters of “Saving Time” sprout and spread in a similar way. A section on leisure time wanders from a consideration of what rest is supposed to accomplish—just enough recovery to enable further work?—to how Black people have been harassed and attacked while engaging in leisure outdoors, such as birding or swimming. Odell ends by wondering whether “something like leisure could be possible in a world saturated by patriarchy, capitalism and colonialisms old and new.”
It’s a revealing question. After “How to Do Nothing” appeared, skeptics complained that it extolled the kind of languorous leisure time that few people were likely to possess. How easy to be present in mountain cabins, to “witness” while spending afternoons in a rose garden, to “prefer not to” during summers off from teaching at Stanford! Some readers groused that her prescriptions were innocent of structural forces or collective action, arguing only for the powers of “solitude, observation, and simple conviviality.” The criticism evidently found its mark: what Odell seems to be trying to outpace in “Saving Time” are those very accusations. The result is a book of hectic history and dutiful structural analysis, every sentence turtled against the arrows of social critique. “The world is ending—but which world?” she writes. “Consider that many worlds have ended, just as many worlds have been born and are about to be born.” Also: “I suggest an adjustment of discretion: experimenting with what looks like mediocrity in some parts of your life. Then you might have a moment to wonder why and to whom it seems mediocre.” The best defense, evidently, is to avoid any offense.
Odell’s signal question is to ask whose time is being devalued. I began to respond in the margins, faintly at first, and then with despair. Whose time is being devalued? Mine, I wrote. Of all the “overlapping temporalities” Odell attends to, the one she seems indifferent to is the time unspooling within her book. A writer, after all, is in the business of taking up time; time is her medium. It is not an unusual experience to feel that one’s time has been misused by a book, but it is novel, and particularly vexing, to feel that one’s time has been misused by a passionate denunciation of the misuse of time—and by a writer who invokes the act of reading to illustrate the very attention she enshrines. “This is real,” she writes in “How to Do Nothing”: “Your eyes reading this text, your hands, your breath, the time of day, the place where you are reading this—these things are real.”
Very often, problems of style and pacing are actually problems of thinking, and here is where one difficulty of “Saving Time” lies. Odell is working with ideas that demand careful, persuasive articulation: the interrelation of so many injustices, how to translate grief into language and language into action. Instead, we receive a relentless synthesis of other people’s work, often in the style of clotted—and sometimes incautious—Wikipedia summaries. Although the roots of Western temporal notions and distortions of time, for instance, are carefully mapped, Indigenous American traditions feel lumped together (sometimes with precolonial conceptions of time from other places in the world), shorn of context, of their own intellectual histories and contingencies. The absence of original thought is striking, suggestive—as if, after the objections to “How to Do Nothing,” the writer is taking cover behind the words of others, or, fretting about the individual as neoliberal construction, is now inclined to keep any thoughts of her own decorously offstage.
And yet it is on the individual level that time’s real textures and oddities are experienced. Odell knows this; she describes, for example, how her time felt so disorganized early in the pandemic (while carefully copping to her relative comfort and privilege). She tells us, wistfully, that she wishes to uncover ways of experiencing time that aren’t linked to pain, as if these methods didn’t exist all around her. In truth, every pleasure worth its name—music, sex, drugs, novel-reading—derives its particular rush from how it alters our sense of time, how it crumples it up or extends it into something long, lush, and strange.
The artist Anne Truitt observes, in the final published volume of her journals, “My sculptures are in a way analogous to time. The intrinsic nature of what they are made of is emerging: chemical changes in the paint on Gloucester and a characteristic of the poplar wood of which Valley Forge was constructed.” Later, she writes, “If I made a sculpture it would just stand there and time would roll over its head and the light would come and the light would go and it would be continuously revealed.” Perhaps we’re little different from her sculptures—both made of time and subject to time, parts of us emerging and evolving within it.
Our struggle to behave responsibly and sanely with time—often labelled “distraction”—isn’t merely a matter of being manipulated. “We mustn’t let Silicon Valley off the hook, but we should be honest: much of the time, we give in to distraction willingly,” Oliver Burkeman writes in his recent book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.” “Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else—to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most.” Burkeman’s point is that our minds wander as a reprieve from difficulty, sensing our limits.
The limits of Odell’s book, in turn, arise from a catechistic indexing of abstract forces, a harried sprint through familiar analyses that scarcely accommodates the waywardness of specific human experience. No moss grows under her feet, she can assure herself. But a book that spent less of its time reprising our era’s commonplaces would have made better use of ours. ♦