Time It Was

In Saving Time, Jenny Odell wants to take back the clock.

jenny odell, saving time, nonfiction, interview
Jenny Odell

Time, we recognize, is a construct. Yes, we use it to measure and organize our days, but it can just as easily provoke panic or confusion. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this.

Oakland-based artist, writer, and educator Jenny Odell explores our strange yet familiar crisis in Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock. Author of the New York Times bestseller How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Odell asks us to sit and consider more deeply what we think we know about time.

In your introduction, you write that “doubt can be the emergency exit that leads somewhere else.” Much of Saving Time feels like a call to doubt, to question what we accept about time.
As a visual artist, a lot of my work has been based on close observation, specifically of things we take for granted.… I made work, for example, with satellite imagery of…swimming pools, parking lots, shopping center signs, things we wouldn’t think of as being very remarkable. But if you look at them from the satellite point of view, or if you just look at your own city from a plane, everything that seemed familiar and stable seems less so in that moment.

You do a lot of research on labor. You unpack attitudes like “time is money” and how we internalize them, as worker or boss. What did you learn most in writing this book?
I was surprised and horrified by how specific and violent the history of selling time is.… Some of the first spreadsheets showing names and amounts of labor were used on plantations. And then there’s the story of how unnatural selling your time for a wage felt for people in the U.S. It’s not like I was expecting that to be a happy story, but I was shocked at the historical details of things that led to this idea we now take for granted: that time can be seen as money.

How do you remain realistic, yet also keep an eye on possibility?
It was important for me to balance individual agency with structural limits. Obviously, people make decisions about how they spend their time, and they could make those decisions differently. But also, someone’s experience of time is highly structured by their job, whether or not they have children, health, disability, where they live.… Like the mother I interview in chapter 2: There are certain things she could maybe do to have more time. But her idea to have a group of six other moms and her, where each makes dinner one day of the week—that shows you that basically at some point, you would have to move beyond individual decisions about your own time in order for everyone to have a more liberated relationship.

You write that an incarcerated person experiences time differently. But there’s a lack of structural support. How can we shift toward a collective doubting or questioning?
I mean, that’s the question, right? That’s part of why I wrote the book. I think sometimes just articulating something creates, almost, a way of gathering around a feeling that a lot of people have. There’s a project called Facing Life that I cited in a footnote in chapter 7. It’s a filmmaker and a writer; basically, they’re interviewing people who were sentenced to life.… It’s giving a platform for these voices and an opportunity for the viewer to empathize and consider what this life is like. I think that’s step one, just having it on the table and being able to look at it and talk about it.… It’s not the whole thing. It’s the part where I feel like I can engage, but then there’s everything beyond that—like actually changing policy.

Throughout the book, you braid in vignettes about the Bay Area. What motivated you to include these scenes?
A good friend of mine was giving me a tour of his small town in the mountains. It was probably an hour-and-a-half-long walk. We talked about so many things, some of which were things that we were passing, some memories from his life. I realized later that I could remember the whole conversation if I went on the walk in my head.… I was also playing Breath of the Wild, the Zelda video game. I had never fully played through a video game before. And I was, again, kind of struck by the fact that the people who designed that game are basically making a spatialized story.… Those are two different experiences, but they happened around the same time, and they inspired me to give the [book] that structure.… It’s a loop. You start in the East Bay, and then you go all the way out to the coast, south of San Francisco, and then you come back. It models what I was trying to do, which is that you start at the beginning and you kind of come back. But you’re coming from a different direction, and you have new information. So everything you saw the first time around looks a little bit different.

I recently got invested in cozy games, which are about spending time in natural environments and escaping—feeling like you are at least, I think, controlling something.
In Breath of the Wild, if there’s lightning, you have to change all your stuff so you don’t get hit. That’s part of what makes these games compelling. You’re right, there is definitely something about having control and being able to make plans. At the same time, I think a good game has these unpredictable elements like the weather and cyclical things like seasons. That’s part of what makes it appealing. It may be an escape, but it turns out people don’t want to be in either a timeless escape or somewhere they can’t control those elements of time.

What about those who are “time traveling,” which is when you change the settings to make it appear that you are in another location or another season?
Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose? What you’re describing is one of the things that, very early on, was interesting to me about time in general.… If you want to see the Douglas Iris, which is a flower in the Bay Area, you have a couple of months to do it and that’s it. You have to wait until next year.… One could call that inconvenience. But it’s also obviously what gives meaning to those things.•

Random House


Random House Bookshop.org

Eva Recinos is an arts and culture journalist and nonfiction writer based in Los Angeles.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below