The Book of Times
By Lesley Alderman
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Time … it keeps on ticking, into the future. The modernist writer Marcel Proust was in search for lost time. H.G. Wells wrote about a machine that traveled through time. And the smartphone is replacing the watch in what we look at to tell what time it is. Lesley Alderman, a health and finance reporter, writes for the New York Times and Money magazine. Her newest book, The Book of Times: From Seconds to Centuries, a Compendium of Measures is a cornucopia of the mundane. Chock full of trivia, charts, and factoids, it analyzes how time is used. How often do Americans pray? What’s the worst month to spend at a hospital? What is the shortest war on record? Divided into twelve parts, The Book of Times investigates how we use time in daily life, love, family, home, the body, occupations, artistic endeavors, energy, destruction, money, media, and longevity. The amount of raw data spread out before the reader is immense. Luckily the reader has different options in how to read this book. One can zip straight through it during a long layover waiting for an airplane flight. Another option is writing bits and pieces. The Book of Times can be a great bathroom reader. It also presents itself as a valuable resource, exhibiting a statistical portrait of modern humanity in the second decade of the 21st century.
As a historian by trade and as a former museum curator, I’m equally impressed and skeptical of how authors choose to exhibit their information. This book operates like a portable museum exhibit, piquing people’s interests with dazzling statistics and witty commentary. History gets trashed by those accusing it of being “a list of names and dates.” That’s true. It’s the basic building blocks of history. But beyond the litany of names and dates memorized and regurgitated for whatever test, the second, and more important factor, is an individual’s interpretation of those names and dates. I mention this as a roundabout way to discuss this book’s method of presentation. Factual, statistical, and dry, at least at first blush. A famous writer once said there are “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” When one analyzes time, one gets lots of statistical data. So what? Here’s a couple columns of numbers. Well … one could think about the significance of those numbers. One can also some important questions about those numbers: How did they get them? Are they correct? Are they accurate? (Correctness and accuracy are two kinds of judgment. Are they superior? Contradictory? Mutually exclusive?) We can go further still. Who came up with those numbers? What was their agenda? Did they bias the data? Is the data limited, under-reported, etc.? One could spend all day dissecting data, the intentions of those who collected and compiled it, and the interpretations they put forward. A list of names and dates seems less boring now.
The Book of Times has hundreds of lists, charts, and columns exhibiting how people use time. Alderman also provides some nice commentary about the data. She can sometimes drop a snide remark or preface the data’s limitations or bias. A more fascinating aspect, beyond Alderman’s commentary, is the narratives that can emerge from the data. In a sidebar titled, “RIP: For how long did these popular gadgets and cars survive?” Alderman traces the longevity of the Sony Walkman, Commodore 64, Kodachrome color film, the Betamax, the 8-track tape, and the Saturn. Kodachrome lasted the longest, “74 years (1935 to 2009)” and Commodore 64 lasted twelve years (1982 to 1994). An interesting trend pops out when looking at the list. The 21st century saw the demise of several iconic technological gadgets within a short period of time. Betamax (2002), Kodachrome (2009), and the Walkman and Saturn car (both 2010). The smartphone’s increased capabilities and the rise in popularity of the tablet computer will also spell the demise for more technology in the very near future. Above a chart on world marriage statistics, Alderman prefaces it by saying, “If you live in Finland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, or another European country, chances are your first marriage will last longer than the U.S. average of 8 years, but these numbers may be influenced by local laws.”
Overall The Book of Times will both entertain and make one think. Time is a human construct and a means by which we arrange the chaos of our lives into a meaningful structure. One can read the book either passively (it is great fun) or more actively (how reliable is some of this data?). Alderman has found a way to generate infotainment without the word sounding cheap or gimmicky. It is up to the reader to decide the accuracy of the data presented here.
Out of 10/9.0