Author Jenny Odell discovers a life beyond the clock
In her new book, Oakland writer Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing, examines time as a commodity to be bought, sold and traded. The clock one lives by has been built for profit, not for people.
Everyone says time is money. But of course, it’s not as simple as that.
With Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Odell argues for a world not centered on work and profit, but focused on the less regular rhythms found in nature—birds migrating, lava flowing, cliffs eroding—perhaps in part to deal with feelings of existential dread surrounding the climate crisis and other apocalyptic threats, perhaps in part to save humans from the self-commodification implied by a time-is-money mindset.
The book is by turns eye-opening, infuriating, heart-breaking and hopeful. Odell writes with a contained, yet palpable, exasperation, careful in research and pointed and justified in analysis.
She introduces the book with an anecdote about noticing a clump of moss growing in her kitchen during the pandemic and how its steady but unobtrusive spreading gave her a sense of time on a smaller, quieter scale. That domestic scene is contrasted with an Instagram influencer’s spur-of-the-moment trip to a sulfur mine in Indonesia, where the workers dig as fast as they can to extract as much poison as possible under life-shortening conditions.
Odell is especially good at dissecting the kinds of productivity and self-improvement philosophies that have been directed to workers across the centuries. Chief among them is engineer Frederic Winslow Taylor, author of 1911’s Principles of Scientific Management, who believed in squeezing the last drop of energy from employees.
She writes that Taylor “outlines methods of breaking down actions into the smallest measurable components,” the kinds of practices that lead to absurdities such as measuring the time it takes to turn over a time card.
These absurdities have not gone away. Just ask anyone who wields a scanner gun on behalf of Amazon or has an employee tracking system (Teramind or Hubstaff, for example) on a workplace computer. Time is money, the marketing emails assert. “Discover exactly what your employees are up to every minute of the day with all-seeing employee monitoring and complete behavior analytic,” she writes.
What is “leisure?” Odell asks, and devotes a chapter to examining the extent to which leisure is better seen as a productivity enhancer, a commodity in itself or something else altogether.
Odell finds further evidence of the commodification of time in the so-called experience economy, noting that, “Elements of slow living, disengagement, and self-care have become favored products in the ‘experience economy.’”
Business analysts credited with coining the term “experience economy,” Odell explains, advised that “the more experience itself was the commodity, the more it would make sense for non-theme-park businesses to charge admissions. This could turn time into money, but it would also create a sense of psychological envelopment that would help increase sales.”
While seeming to argue for leisure as a state of mind facilitated by engaging certain “leisure” (and often public) spaces, Odell cautions that, “consideration of leisure as a mindset—its definition, conditions and purpose—is complicated by the history in the United States of the active destruction of anything and everything that many people have needed for wholeness, a sense of agency, and peace of mind.”
Readers get welcome glimpses of Odell and her family as they, for example, discuss whether speaking about “Filipino time,” when their guests habitually arrive an hour late or so, is racist. A trip to Hawaii with her mother leads to a discussion about whether they should spend their time doing touristy things like climbing a volcano in Maui to watch the sun come up. Even a second-rate theme park, such as Great America, where she drew caricatures for two summers, has lessons to impart.
Odell intersperses the well-researched exposition of Saving Time with italicized personal accounts of a road trip through the Bay Area, noting the abundance of activity happening all around her at each juncture. The trip takes her from the business of the Port of Oakland, to San Mateo hills and beaches, to an independent library of unique historical books and ephemera in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, back to an Oakland cemetery and columbarium. Odell sees the big and small details. Her experience with the visual arts serves her in good stead, helping her make observations perhaps invisible to the untrained eye.
Through noting her observations along the Nimitz Freeway, the Dumbarton Bridge, at a stop in a Palo Alto mall, while walking in mid-Peninsula space preserves, at the Pacific coast, in the library and cemetery, Odell evokes different notions of time—the often harrowing commute from Hayward to San Jose, the seasonal biological growth in the preserve, the vast geological span of ocean sediment morphing into beach pebbles and sand.
Saving Time ends with Odell contemplating a tidal pool containing sea stars, ancient creatures suddenly threatened by a wasting syndrome that turns them into mush. From that simple setting, she unveils a whole host of fascinating connections: the science fiction of Ted Chiang, the fossil record of the great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, the mechanics of tides, her personal feelings about “parts of me dying and other parts coming to life.”
“Everything will happen again. Again. Again. Again.” That’s an idea that’s both comforting and frightening for Odell.
“In the center of me a muscle was beating, a series of creation events ongoing for now that I hadn’t started and wouldn’t stop,” she writes.
The selection is emblematic of Saving Time as a whole—astute, affecting and particular.
With two books under her belt, Odell has proved to be a singular talent, able to mix philosophy, sociology, memoir and biology. Sometimes it feels too rich a mixture, but she has staked her claim on a new way of perceiving how one might view one’s present situation with equanimity.
Jenny Odell will appear at the Bay Area Book Festival panel discussion, ‘Finding Nature, Saving Time,’ moderated by KQED’s Alexis Madrigal, Sunday, May 7, at 11am, in The Magnes Museum Auditorium, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley.