As part of writing Off the Clock, I’ve been reading a lot of literature on time. Robert Grudin’s Time and the Art of Living came well recommended, and I enjoyed reading it on the flight to California a few weeks ago. Amazon’s algorithm also recommended I pick up a copy of Why Time Flies, by Alan Burdick, a staff writer at the New Yorker. While Grudin’s book came out in 1982, Burdick’s was published just last week. It explores the science of time, including its measurement and perception.
In many ways, it’s a fascinating book (I’ll quote Charles Duhigg’s blurb: “This book blew my mind.”) Burdick recounts what it’s like to live in complete light (the Arctic in summer) or complete darkness (the depths of a cave). People have circadian rhythms, but they aren’t exactly 24 hours. Without cues, we become unmoored. We turn to social time; scientists in the Arctic camp all showed up, without fail, for the 6:30 a.m. breakfast. Emotional and intense events stand out in the brain more than neutral ones; time seems to bend to catch our attention. The brain takes in information on something akin to a tape delay, and then sorts out the order later. The result is that in the lab, people can be trained to think two events separated by some milliseconds happened at the same time; when the gap is eliminated, time seems to move backward (e.g. a light comes on where you’re about to click before you appear to click). People who report that their lives feel busy and they don’t have enough time for the things they want to do are more likely to report that the years are passing swiftly. Babies are born with a preference for synchrony; it may be how they match up sounds and actions and learn about the world around them. The world’s most accurate “clock” is actually an email report sent around averaging the times reported by clocks around the world.
All this was very interesting, but I have to say that my favorite parts of the book were when Burdick talked about life with his two young sons. Twins, they developed a keen perception of time as relates to which child had gotten some desired Thing the longest: “To the boy without the Thing, the other boy’s turn is always longer. Duration is very much in the eye of the beholder, not the holder.” Usually Burdick would set an egg timer for 2 minutes. One day, he set it for 4 minutes to buy himself 2 more minutes of peace, but sure enough, one boy appeared at 2 minutes to check in. There are such wry observations, but more wistful ones too. We think time speeds up as we age, but it doesn’t. Instead, he simply sees his boys turning from babies to toddlers to school aged children as he takes years longer to write this book than he planned. “Time isn’t speeding up; it’s pace is cruelly steady, a fact of which I am ever more painfully aware,” he notes.
In other news: What’s your favorite book about time? Any you’d add to my reading list?
In other, other news: The blurb for Off the Clock: Secrets of People with All the Time in the World, appeared in Publisher’s Lunch Weekly, so I guess it’s official! Now I just need to write it.