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Saving Time by Jenny Odell: Mind-bending musings

Author of How to Do Nothing reconsiders society’s relationship with the clock

Jenny Odell illustrates how time is monetised, politicised and used to manipulate and possess us
Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock
Author: Jenny Odell
ISBN-13: 978-1847926845
Publisher: Bodley Head
Guideline Price: £20

In Saving Time the author, artist and educator Jenny Odell writes that visits to public parks “saved her life” during the pandemic. I hope she knows that her first book, How to Do Nothing, did the same for this reader and, I suspect, many others, during the same period. Less a self-help book than a study of the ways in which technology, work and the capitalist spirit of competition affect us, it argued that our attention can ultimately be reclaimed, and can break free from these influences. Saving Time acts as its sequel, with Odell developing her themes of work, community and resistance, this time through the lens of time.

“To be alive is to be in transit,” Odell writes, drawing on diverse theorists and case studies to illustrate the ways in which time is fragmented, monetised, politicised and, ultimately, used to manipulate and possess us. She also considers alternative concepts of time; one especially compelling idea originates in Ancient Greece, where two separate words, “chronos” and “kairos”, differentiated linear time and its more spontaneous, qualitative counterpart, “the right time” rather than “time enough”.

The book becomes an exercise in mind-bending, a rare work of academic psychedelia that asks readers to imagine a world with seven seasons instead of four (as recognised by the Aboriginal Kulin nation), where aspects of our environment – moss, tectonic plates, flocks of birds – keep time in a different way, and where each living being exists not as an individual, but as part of a “long meantime” encompassing the present and the whole of the past. “Am I Jenny or am I my mother’s daughter, my grandmother’s granddaughter?” Odell asks. “If I am an event, when did I start? Thirty-five years ago? Hundreds of years ago? Thousands?”

Some of this book’s most thought-provoking sections set out to redefine familiar concepts. Nature, to Odell, describes something “not as object but as subject, as something (someone) acting in time”. The term “anthropocene”, meanwhile, is judged to be misguided, as it condemns the whole of humanity for planetary damage done by a small but powerful fraction of its number.

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Odell challenges the line, espoused by influencers and chief executives, that “everyone has the same number of hours in the day”, and argues that our environment, its systems and creatures, possesses legal and ethical rights. Another particularly stunning passage concerns the notion of apocalypse. “The world is ending – but which world?” Odell asks, highlighting how, for indigenous people especially, the apocalypse has already happened and we live in its aftermath.

This expansiveness, both thematic and formal, is also what makes Odell’s writing so valuable and unique

Odell’s ability to articulate these ideas and connect them, drawing on a daunting number of quotes and theories from other critics, is captivating when it succeeds. At times, however, the sheer number of references becomes overwhelming and the theme feels too slippery; you find yourself stepping back and wondering how we progressed from moss patterns to the experiences of Black birders, to employee surveillance systems, to one of, admittedly, the greatest Simpsons quotes of all time (“I am the Angel of Death, the hour of purification is at hand.”).

This book is not as immediately endearing as How to Do Nothing was; its implications are a lot less hopeful. Similarly, if all this sounds very abstract, it’s because it’s meant to be. Odell approaches time in a way I’ve only seen previously in science fiction, in novels like Olaf Stapleton’s Star Maker, which branches far beyond our human epoch, or, more recently, the TV series The OA, the plot of which unfolds across parallel, interconnected realities.

However, this expansiveness, both thematic and formal, is also what makes Odell’s writing so valuable and unique. Saving Time stands among what might be called a wave of post-Haraway, anti-anthropocentric books – Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life comes to mind – which take a formally fluid, polyphonic approach to nonfiction writing on science and culture. It feels especially vital in a world where extreme and far-right ideas promote a particular vision of the past, one where violence, chauvinism and conquest are framed as inherent in human nature. Similarly, Saving Time warns against allowing certain dubious narratives to dominate the future. Oil companies are already at work devising ways in which to make themselves indispensable, while advancing the idea that saving the Earth from climate change rests with the individual and not with them.

This book is not easy to read, nor is it particularly comforting, but there is something quietly fearless about its arguments and the diversity of its scope. It is, ultimately, an extraordinarily good thing that Odell’s work exists in the world, and that a large publishing house is promoting her, and that she has found a way to fit this cornucopia of ideas between two covers, at this particular point in the long, chaotic meantime.

Roisin Kiberd is author of The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet