Book Review: “Timekeepers” by Simon Garfield

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I almost never hear watch enthusiasts talk about time itself. This isn’t entirely strange. Fans of cars don’t talk about transportation; furniture buffs don’t discuss posture; even baseball card collectors have been known to ignore the game itself. Alas, sometimes an obsession with accouterments obscures the bigger picture. That’s unfortunate for the horologically obsessed, because time is a fascinating and vast topic. Pondering time can invoke a childlike wonder as we gaze at the dial, and it can pique our curiosity about astro-, nuclear-, and metaphysics, mechanical and electrical engineering, anthropology and sociology, urban planning, economics, banking, psychology, pharmacology, and on and on. Time so pervades our lives that the word “time” is the most used in the English language, a fact that Simon Garfield drops early on in his book Timekeepers. 

I’ve read a short stack of books about time, and none are as compelling, approachable, and relevant as Timekeepers. Garfield writes that, “This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to measure it, control it, sell it, film it, perform it, immortalize it and make it meaningful.” He’s quick to point out that Timekeepers will not get into speculations on the nature of time or “the mind-bending mechanics of time travel.” Instead, Garfield takes us from before accurate measurements of time dominated our days up to the present moment in which we have tethered ourselves to electronic calendars that schedule us to the minute and, unsurprisingly, stress us out by making us feel that we don’t have enough time. “Time, once passive, is now aggressive,” Garfield writes, and then he spends 330 pages explaining how that happened and what to make of it. Unsurprisingly, watches figure prominently.

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Garfield’s consistent return to horology makes it clear that he is personally into watches. In the chapter “Horology Part I: How to Make a Watch,” Garfield visits IWC’s manufacture where he micro-wrestled a few tiny screws into a movement during a watchmaking clinic. Using IWC as the central example, Garfield describes some basics—like what a complication is—but his keen mind and sharp wit shed light into some interesting corners. For example, I’d never heard of a leap second before, let alone the dangers it presents to keeping global UTC and GPS systems running properly. In “Horology Part II: How to Sell the Time,” Garfield gives us a down-and-dirty look at watch advertising. You can see Garfield’s eyes roll when he writes of Patek Philippe’s slogans about never really owning a Patek, and he perks up when writing about Bremont’s deft weaving of narratives into their watches. Confronted with the bejeweled time-telling extravagances at Baselworld, Garfield writes, “some men want jangly stuff to define their status, and have done [so] since the time of Henry VIII.” Then he meditates on Timex having updated the lickin’-n-tickin’ slogan with the monosyllabic “SHOCK.”

Watches show up throughout most of the other chapters of Timekeepers. We learn about entire train cars having been dedicated solely to railroad obsessives armed with stop-watches who measured the train’s speed. Garfield also writes about watches in space and other stuff we watch-heads probably already know. The book gets more interesting when Garfield grapples with aspects of time that we seldom contemplate. The chapter about Roger Bannister setting the world record for running a mile turns out to be a charming consideration of how our greatest life achievements often boil down to a few minutes. The chapter about the photographer of the horrific Vietnam War image called “Napalm Girl” (you’ve seen it, I’m sure) digresses into a story about using Leica cameras to freeze time.

The most sobering chapter in Timekeepers peruses the endless list of time management books out there. Here Garfield is at his best, using his wit and insight to reveal the inherent sexism, tired metaphors, and total absurdity of books that ask us to sacrifice big chunks of time in order learn how to stop wasting time. Did you know that time-management apps dominate the app market? Did you know that time management books proliferate every year and sell like hotcakes? Either we suck at managing our time, or, more likely, we believe we suck at it. That chapter was painful to read, but it also reminded me how essential our perceptions of time are to how we feel in any given moment. Now look down at your watch.

Timekeepers via Amazon

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.
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