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Saving Time

Discovering a Life Beyond Productivity Culture

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The visionary author of How to Do Nothing returns to challenge the notion that ‘time is money.’ . . . Expect to feel changed by this radical way of seeing.”—Esquire

“One of the most important books I’ve read in my life.”—Ed Yong, author of An Immense World

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Chicago Public Library, Electric Lit


In her first book, How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell wrote about the importance of disconnecting from the “attention economy” to spend time in quiet contemplation. But what if you don’t have time to spend?

In order to answer this seemingly simple question, Odell took a deep dive into the fundamental structure of our society and found that the clock we live by was built for profit, not people. This is why our lives, even in leisure, have come to seem like a series of moments to be bought, sold, and processed ever more efficiently. Odell shows us how our painful relationship to time is inextricably connected not only to persisting social inequities but to the climate crisis, existential dread, and a lethal fatalism.

This dazzling, subversive, and deeply hopeful book offers us different ways to experience time—inspired by pre-industrial cultures, ecological cues, and geological timescales—that can bring within reach a more humane, responsive way of living. As planet-bound animals, we live inside shortening and lengthening days alongside gardens growing, birds migrating, and cliffs eroding; the stretchy quality of waiting and desire; the way the present may suddenly feel marbled with childhood memory; the slow but sure procession of a pregnancy; the time it takes to heal from injuries. Odell urges us to become stewards of these different rhythms of life in which time is not reducible to standardized units and instead forms the very medium of possibility.

Saving Time tugs at the seams of reality as we know it—the way we experience time itself—and rearranges it, imagining a world not centered on work, the office clock, or the profit motive. If we can “save” time by imagining a life, identity, and source of meaning outside these things, time might also save us.
Chapter 1

Whose Time, Whose Money?


The Port of Oakland

Time to me is about life-span and the ageing of individuals against the background of the history of our world, the universe, eternity. —Dominique, a schoolteacher interviewed in Barbara Adam’s Timewatch

Moments are the elements of profit. —A nineteenth-century British factory master, quoted in Karl Marx, Capital


We’ve emerged westward from the Seventh Street tunnel into the Port of Oakland, in a sun-blasted sedan I have had since high school. The clock in this car went dark at some undetermined point long ago, but my phone tells us it’s seven a.m., eight minutes after the sunrise.

Ahead is a wide cement expanse punctuated by palm trees and pieces of things: trucks without containers; containers without trucks; chassis, tires, boxes, pallets. All of them lumped together, sometimes stacked, partitioned in ways not immediately legible to us. A landscape of work. As the BART train tracks and their chain-link fence disappear underground, soon to pass beneath the San Francisco Bay, they reveal a different kind of train, double-stacked with containers in serendipitous color combinations: white and gray, hot pink and navy blue, bright red and dark, dusty red. There are a few indications of human bodily concerns: a picnic table painted red, a portable toilet, an empty food stand, and a vinyl ad for chiropractic services.

We pull into Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, which is separated from the SSA Marine terminal by a see-through fence. Just on the other side, the stacks are six containers high, giving the impression of an endless city made of corrugated metal. Farther ahead are the dinosaur-like figures: blue-green straddle carriers and white shipping cranes, some of them sixteen stories tall. A massive ship sits underneath them, having arrived from Shenzhen. But, for now, the equipment is sleeping; the workers are just clocking in.

In July 1998, the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) decided to make its researchers start clocking in and out of the lab. They could not have known the backlash this would inspire, not only at the institute but also across the world. Hundreds of scientists wrote in support of the INFN physicists’ complaints, saying that the move was needlessly bureaucratic, insulting, and out of step with how the researchers actually worked. “Good science can’t be measured by the clock,” wrote the former director of the American Institute of Physics. A physics professor from Rochester University surmised that “the US garment industry must be advising the INFN on how to improve productivity.” And the deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wrote in with cutting sarcasm: “Maybe they will chain you to your desks and benches next, so you do not go out after you come in, or better yet, install brain monitors to make sure you are thinking physics and not other thoughts while you are at your desks.”

In a compilation of the letters written in response to the new policy, only a few express ambivalence over the scientists’ protest. The most straightforward disagreement comes from Tommy Anderberg, a rare contributor with no listed professional affiliation. Instead, he identifies as a taxpayer and one who is angry about this kvetching by public employees:

Your employers, in this case anyone paying taxes in Italy (the real thing, money derived from earnings realized in the private sector, not the piece of accounting fiction being applied to your own, tax-financed paycheck), have every right to demand that you be at your place of employment at the times stipulated by your contract.

If you don’t like your terms of employment, quit.

In fact, I have a great suggestion if you want real freedom. Do what I did: start your own business. Then you’ll be able to call your own shots and work when, where and with whatever you feel like.

At its heart, this disagreement—between the working scientists on the one hand and the INFN and Tommy Anderberg on the other—isn’t just about what work is and how it should be measured. It’s also about what an employer buys when they pay you money. For Anderberg, it’s a package deal including not only work but also life minutes, bodily presence, and humiliation.

As attested to by the scientists’ wry jokes about factories and being “chained to a desk” (an image that comes up in several of the letters), the concept of clocking in and out comes from an industrial model of work. Probably one of the best illustrations of this model is the beginning of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times. The very first image in the film is that of a clock—severe, rectangular, and filling the entire screen behind the title credits. Then a shot of sheep being herded fades into a view of workers exiting the subway and heading to work at “Electro Steel Corp.,” where two very different kinds of time exist side by side.

The first is leisurely: The president of the company sits alone in a quiet office, halfheartedly working on a puzzle and glancing idly through a newspaper. After an assistant brings him water and a supplement, he pulls up closed-circuit camera views of various sections of the factory. We see his face appear on a screen in front of a worker in charge of the factory’s pace. “Section Five!” he barks. “Speed her up, four one.”

Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, is now subjected to the second temporality—that of time as punishing and ever intensifying. On an assembly line, he frantically works to screw nuts into pieces of machinery, falling behind when he has to scratch an itch or is distracted by a bee hovering around his face. When his foreman tells him to take a break, he walks away jerkily, unable to stop performing the motions of his job. In the bathroom, the manic soundtrack briefly turns to reverie, and the Tramp calms down a bit, beginning to relish a cigarette. But all too soon, the face of the president appears on the bathroom wall: “Hey! Quit stalling! Get back to work!”

Meanwhile, the company tries out an inventor’s time-saving device. It comes with its own recorded advertisement: “The Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don’t stop for lunch! Be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour.” On his break, the Tramp is picked out as management’s guinea pig and strapped into what is essentially a full-body vise behind a rotating platter of foods. Things get out of hand when the machine malfunctions and the corn cob rotator starts going too fast, slamming the spinning cob into the Tramp’s face over and over again.

I consider the corn cob malfunction one of the funniest movie moments I have ever seen. On the one hand, the scene is a joke about the capitalist’s desire to scrimp and save on the labor time for which he has paid—to squeeze more work from the worker in the same amount of time. (If humans could just eat corn faster, the crazily spinning cob might not be a problem at all.) On the other hand, it’s a joke about the human assimilated to a disciplinary pacing: Just as he must keep up with the assembly line and minimize bathroom breaks, he must also comply with the feeding machine’s rate of food delivery. He must become an eating machine.

Time, in this world, is an input just like water, electricity, or corn cobs. A 1916 advertisement by the International Time Recording Company of New York in Factory Magazine addressed the head of the factory and made this connection explicit: “Time costs you money. You buy it just as you buy a raw material.” In order to wring the most value from this time material, the employer resorts to surveillance and control. In a 1927 issue of Industrial Management, Calculagraph, another time recorder company, put it this way: “You pay them CASH! How Much TIME do They pay You?”

This final question makes sense only from the point of view of the factory owner, who is counting not just elapsed time, but time spent specifically producing value for him. The Tramp illustrates this distinction when he dutifully punches out in order to go to the bathroom and punches in again after the boss ends his break. Nor is this an exaggeration. In the history of work, things could get pretty granular: In the one hundred thousand words that make up the eighteenth-century rule book for the Crowley Iron Works, deductions from time paid included “being at taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, breakfast, dinner, playing, sleeping, smoking, singing, reading of news history, quarelling, contention, disputes, or anything forreign to my business, any way loytering . . . ​[sic].” In other words, a more accurate ad for the Calculagraph might have asked, “How much LABOR TIME do They pay You?”
“This grand, eclectic, wide-ranging work is about the various problems that swirl out from dominant conceptions of ‘time,’ which sometimes means history, sometimes means an individual lifetime and sometimes means the future”The New York Times (Editors’ Choice)
 
Saving Time seeks a more expansive, nonlinear view of time itself, an important endeavor. . . . A kind of compendium on time itself, one that attempts to take a less depressing and deterministic view of the climate future.”Vanity Fair

“Odell’s follow-up to 2019’s How to Do Nothing establishes her as a leading philosopher of our age.”Hazlitt

“A sweeping yet personal challenge to assumptions Western society makes about the relationships between individuals and the finite hours in a given day.”Time

“You might just put this book down with a whole new outlook on how you measure your days.”Harper’s Bazaar

“Odell’s work is purposeful, hopeful, and humane.”—Chicago Public Library

“An ambitious project that takes on time-management, self-help, climate nihilism, our fear of dying and the grind of corporate life, ultimately asking us to see time itself through different lenses.”The Washington Post

“Unpack[s] the clock as a tool of domination [and] goes in search of a conception of time that isn’t painful—but rather, liberatory.”Ms.

“Odell elevates non-Western, non-linear ways of understanding time—as circular, or tied to our changing environments, or stretching into the past and future simultaneously. Money can’t buy the time it takes the ocean to wear down rock.”Literary Hub

“A carefully constructed vision of hope with meaningful advice that will linger.”—BookPage (starred review)

“Bounds from the meaning of church bells to present-day methods for optimizing every moment of our lives—always with an eye to the holdouts against temporal order.”Vulture
 
“At this pivotal historical moment, when so many of us are struggling with burnout, anxiety about the future, and a gnawing dissatisfaction that things don’t have to be like this, in strides Jenny Odell with the exact book that we needed . . . It is rigorous, compassionate, profound, and hopeful. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life.”—Ed Yong, author of An Immense World and I Contain Multitudes

“I experience Jenny Odell’s work as the rarest kind of intervention: it alters you immediately, and then it lasts. In Saving Time, she is alive, as always, to the bleakest aspects of contemporary existence—the brute-force instrumentalization of our time, our planet, our humanity—and yet [Jenny Odell] finds a way to transubstantiate grief into vision, to beat back inevitability and instead show us possibility, beauty, resolve, sublime desire . . . Saving Time is an inimitable gift.”—Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror
© Ryan Meyer
Jenny Odell is a multidisciplinary artist and author. Her first book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was the New York Times bestseller. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Sierra magazine, and other publications. She lives in Oakland, California. View titles by Jenny Odell

About

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “The visionary author of How to Do Nothing returns to challenge the notion that ‘time is money.’ . . . Expect to feel changed by this radical way of seeing.”—Esquire

“One of the most important books I’ve read in my life.”—Ed Yong, author of An Immense World

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Chicago Public Library, Electric Lit


In her first book, How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell wrote about the importance of disconnecting from the “attention economy” to spend time in quiet contemplation. But what if you don’t have time to spend?

In order to answer this seemingly simple question, Odell took a deep dive into the fundamental structure of our society and found that the clock we live by was built for profit, not people. This is why our lives, even in leisure, have come to seem like a series of moments to be bought, sold, and processed ever more efficiently. Odell shows us how our painful relationship to time is inextricably connected not only to persisting social inequities but to the climate crisis, existential dread, and a lethal fatalism.

This dazzling, subversive, and deeply hopeful book offers us different ways to experience time—inspired by pre-industrial cultures, ecological cues, and geological timescales—that can bring within reach a more humane, responsive way of living. As planet-bound animals, we live inside shortening and lengthening days alongside gardens growing, birds migrating, and cliffs eroding; the stretchy quality of waiting and desire; the way the present may suddenly feel marbled with childhood memory; the slow but sure procession of a pregnancy; the time it takes to heal from injuries. Odell urges us to become stewards of these different rhythms of life in which time is not reducible to standardized units and instead forms the very medium of possibility.

Saving Time tugs at the seams of reality as we know it—the way we experience time itself—and rearranges it, imagining a world not centered on work, the office clock, or the profit motive. If we can “save” time by imagining a life, identity, and source of meaning outside these things, time might also save us.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Whose Time, Whose Money?


The Port of Oakland

Time to me is about life-span and the ageing of individuals against the background of the history of our world, the universe, eternity. —Dominique, a schoolteacher interviewed in Barbara Adam’s Timewatch

Moments are the elements of profit. —A nineteenth-century British factory master, quoted in Karl Marx, Capital


We’ve emerged westward from the Seventh Street tunnel into the Port of Oakland, in a sun-blasted sedan I have had since high school. The clock in this car went dark at some undetermined point long ago, but my phone tells us it’s seven a.m., eight minutes after the sunrise.

Ahead is a wide cement expanse punctuated by palm trees and pieces of things: trucks without containers; containers without trucks; chassis, tires, boxes, pallets. All of them lumped together, sometimes stacked, partitioned in ways not immediately legible to us. A landscape of work. As the BART train tracks and their chain-link fence disappear underground, soon to pass beneath the San Francisco Bay, they reveal a different kind of train, double-stacked with containers in serendipitous color combinations: white and gray, hot pink and navy blue, bright red and dark, dusty red. There are a few indications of human bodily concerns: a picnic table painted red, a portable toilet, an empty food stand, and a vinyl ad for chiropractic services.

We pull into Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, which is separated from the SSA Marine terminal by a see-through fence. Just on the other side, the stacks are six containers high, giving the impression of an endless city made of corrugated metal. Farther ahead are the dinosaur-like figures: blue-green straddle carriers and white shipping cranes, some of them sixteen stories tall. A massive ship sits underneath them, having arrived from Shenzhen. But, for now, the equipment is sleeping; the workers are just clocking in.

In July 1998, the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) decided to make its researchers start clocking in and out of the lab. They could not have known the backlash this would inspire, not only at the institute but also across the world. Hundreds of scientists wrote in support of the INFN physicists’ complaints, saying that the move was needlessly bureaucratic, insulting, and out of step with how the researchers actually worked. “Good science can’t be measured by the clock,” wrote the former director of the American Institute of Physics. A physics professor from Rochester University surmised that “the US garment industry must be advising the INFN on how to improve productivity.” And the deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wrote in with cutting sarcasm: “Maybe they will chain you to your desks and benches next, so you do not go out after you come in, or better yet, install brain monitors to make sure you are thinking physics and not other thoughts while you are at your desks.”

In a compilation of the letters written in response to the new policy, only a few express ambivalence over the scientists’ protest. The most straightforward disagreement comes from Tommy Anderberg, a rare contributor with no listed professional affiliation. Instead, he identifies as a taxpayer and one who is angry about this kvetching by public employees:

Your employers, in this case anyone paying taxes in Italy (the real thing, money derived from earnings realized in the private sector, not the piece of accounting fiction being applied to your own, tax-financed paycheck), have every right to demand that you be at your place of employment at the times stipulated by your contract.

If you don’t like your terms of employment, quit.

In fact, I have a great suggestion if you want real freedom. Do what I did: start your own business. Then you’ll be able to call your own shots and work when, where and with whatever you feel like.

At its heart, this disagreement—between the working scientists on the one hand and the INFN and Tommy Anderberg on the other—isn’t just about what work is and how it should be measured. It’s also about what an employer buys when they pay you money. For Anderberg, it’s a package deal including not only work but also life minutes, bodily presence, and humiliation.

As attested to by the scientists’ wry jokes about factories and being “chained to a desk” (an image that comes up in several of the letters), the concept of clocking in and out comes from an industrial model of work. Probably one of the best illustrations of this model is the beginning of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times. The very first image in the film is that of a clock—severe, rectangular, and filling the entire screen behind the title credits. Then a shot of sheep being herded fades into a view of workers exiting the subway and heading to work at “Electro Steel Corp.,” where two very different kinds of time exist side by side.

The first is leisurely: The president of the company sits alone in a quiet office, halfheartedly working on a puzzle and glancing idly through a newspaper. After an assistant brings him water and a supplement, he pulls up closed-circuit camera views of various sections of the factory. We see his face appear on a screen in front of a worker in charge of the factory’s pace. “Section Five!” he barks. “Speed her up, four one.”

Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, is now subjected to the second temporality—that of time as punishing and ever intensifying. On an assembly line, he frantically works to screw nuts into pieces of machinery, falling behind when he has to scratch an itch or is distracted by a bee hovering around his face. When his foreman tells him to take a break, he walks away jerkily, unable to stop performing the motions of his job. In the bathroom, the manic soundtrack briefly turns to reverie, and the Tramp calms down a bit, beginning to relish a cigarette. But all too soon, the face of the president appears on the bathroom wall: “Hey! Quit stalling! Get back to work!”

Meanwhile, the company tries out an inventor’s time-saving device. It comes with its own recorded advertisement: “The Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don’t stop for lunch! Be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour.” On his break, the Tramp is picked out as management’s guinea pig and strapped into what is essentially a full-body vise behind a rotating platter of foods. Things get out of hand when the machine malfunctions and the corn cob rotator starts going too fast, slamming the spinning cob into the Tramp’s face over and over again.

I consider the corn cob malfunction one of the funniest movie moments I have ever seen. On the one hand, the scene is a joke about the capitalist’s desire to scrimp and save on the labor time for which he has paid—to squeeze more work from the worker in the same amount of time. (If humans could just eat corn faster, the crazily spinning cob might not be a problem at all.) On the other hand, it’s a joke about the human assimilated to a disciplinary pacing: Just as he must keep up with the assembly line and minimize bathroom breaks, he must also comply with the feeding machine’s rate of food delivery. He must become an eating machine.

Time, in this world, is an input just like water, electricity, or corn cobs. A 1916 advertisement by the International Time Recording Company of New York in Factory Magazine addressed the head of the factory and made this connection explicit: “Time costs you money. You buy it just as you buy a raw material.” In order to wring the most value from this time material, the employer resorts to surveillance and control. In a 1927 issue of Industrial Management, Calculagraph, another time recorder company, put it this way: “You pay them CASH! How Much TIME do They pay You?”

This final question makes sense only from the point of view of the factory owner, who is counting not just elapsed time, but time spent specifically producing value for him. The Tramp illustrates this distinction when he dutifully punches out in order to go to the bathroom and punches in again after the boss ends his break. Nor is this an exaggeration. In the history of work, things could get pretty granular: In the one hundred thousand words that make up the eighteenth-century rule book for the Crowley Iron Works, deductions from time paid included “being at taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, breakfast, dinner, playing, sleeping, smoking, singing, reading of news history, quarelling, contention, disputes, or anything forreign to my business, any way loytering . . . ​[sic].” In other words, a more accurate ad for the Calculagraph might have asked, “How much LABOR TIME do They pay You?”

Praise

“This grand, eclectic, wide-ranging work is about the various problems that swirl out from dominant conceptions of ‘time,’ which sometimes means history, sometimes means an individual lifetime and sometimes means the future”The New York Times (Editors’ Choice)
 
Saving Time seeks a more expansive, nonlinear view of time itself, an important endeavor. . . . A kind of compendium on time itself, one that attempts to take a less depressing and deterministic view of the climate future.”Vanity Fair

“Odell’s follow-up to 2019’s How to Do Nothing establishes her as a leading philosopher of our age.”Hazlitt

“A sweeping yet personal challenge to assumptions Western society makes about the relationships between individuals and the finite hours in a given day.”Time

“You might just put this book down with a whole new outlook on how you measure your days.”Harper’s Bazaar

“Odell’s work is purposeful, hopeful, and humane.”—Chicago Public Library

“An ambitious project that takes on time-management, self-help, climate nihilism, our fear of dying and the grind of corporate life, ultimately asking us to see time itself through different lenses.”The Washington Post

“Unpack[s] the clock as a tool of domination [and] goes in search of a conception of time that isn’t painful—but rather, liberatory.”Ms.

“Odell elevates non-Western, non-linear ways of understanding time—as circular, or tied to our changing environments, or stretching into the past and future simultaneously. Money can’t buy the time it takes the ocean to wear down rock.”Literary Hub

“A carefully constructed vision of hope with meaningful advice that will linger.”—BookPage (starred review)

“Bounds from the meaning of church bells to present-day methods for optimizing every moment of our lives—always with an eye to the holdouts against temporal order.”Vulture
 
“At this pivotal historical moment, when so many of us are struggling with burnout, anxiety about the future, and a gnawing dissatisfaction that things don’t have to be like this, in strides Jenny Odell with the exact book that we needed . . . It is rigorous, compassionate, profound, and hopeful. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life.”—Ed Yong, author of An Immense World and I Contain Multitudes

“I experience Jenny Odell’s work as the rarest kind of intervention: it alters you immediately, and then it lasts. In Saving Time, she is alive, as always, to the bleakest aspects of contemporary existence—the brute-force instrumentalization of our time, our planet, our humanity—and yet [Jenny Odell] finds a way to transubstantiate grief into vision, to beat back inevitability and instead show us possibility, beauty, resolve, sublime desire . . . Saving Time is an inimitable gift.”—Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror

Author

© Ryan Meyer
Jenny Odell is a multidisciplinary artist and author. Her first book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was the New York Times bestseller. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Sierra magazine, and other publications. She lives in Oakland, California. View titles by Jenny Odell

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We’re pleased to share videos from the 2024 First-Year Experience® Conference. Whether you weren’t able to join us at the conference or would simply like to hear the talks again, please take a moment to view the clips below.   Penguin Random House Author Breakfast Monday, February 19th, 7:15 – 8:45 am PST This event

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