Spending Time

Who Knows Where the Time Goes
Sandy Denny

Spending Time

Woman Reading
Utagawa Kuniyoshi

There was an article recently in the Guardian, “Who stole our reading time?,” about time and reading and the encroachment of interests and obligations. Though it is true for many that work and other obligations are consuming more of their time, it is other leisure activities that are most responsible for a decline in the number of hours spent reading, even on the part of, at least at one time, avid readers. When I first started teaching an English teacher at the school said that being a teacher left him little time to read. This seemed strange to me at the time but less strange now. Not only do papers need to be graded, but everything now has to be documented. Documentation is not a bad thing, but there are only so many hours in the day and that cannot be changed, but the expectations change regularly and it is amazing how much some seem to think can be done in the course of a day. I envy the woman in the painting who is so engrossed in her book; but of course not being a reader of Japanese I do not really know what it is she is reading; it may be local gossip, it may be epic poetry.

The song asks where the time goes. The harder we work the faster the time seems to pass and the more easily it is lost. At the end of each day there is satisfaction over what has been accomplished, but also a bit of frustration over what has been set aside for another day. Where did the time go? Perhaps management is part of the problem but can it be the whole problem. Why at the end of the day is looking at a film often more attractive than reading a book? Is it that our energies are drained by the things that we must do such that there is not sufficient energy for what we would like to do. The more passive the activity the less energy it requires, but also the less satisfaction and enrichment it supplies. What happens to a people whose minds and imaginations are inadequately nourished?

The elephant clock from Al-Jazari’s manuscript

Clocks are interesting machines that keep track of time and how much of it has passed. We may not know where the time goes, but we always know how much of it has gone. The images above and below are of clocks that to me do not look like clocks. It is said that replicas of these clocks have been built and that they keep good time, but for the life of me, I do not know how, I do not see the clock faces that I am accustomed to seeing that indicate the time of day, but there must be a way of reading them. Perhaps it takes little imagination to read these clocks once one understands how they work, but the images suggest that the clocks telling the time are also telling a story.

Clock of al-Jazari

These images also suggest that simple things, like telling time, can be infused with a bit of imagination and magic. These clocks are not purely utilitarian; in fact, they probably serve more of a decorative than a practical purpose. Still, if the story surrounding these clocks is true, they did not merely decorate. I think this speaks to something inside us that wants our tools to be more than merely functional, that they ought to please us as they work for us; they ought, like great poetry, to delight and instruct (or perhaps, merely inform). Who knows, perhaps the work that most deeply satisfies is work that delights us in its performance and enriches us in its contemplation.

The Corpus Clock & Chronophage
John Taylor

The film is of a clock that “consumes” the time. Its maker calls it a “Chronophage” or “time eater.” This clock, too, requires us to “read” time differently, we have to work harder, pay more attention, to the clock to get the time. But like many great clocks it is a thing of beauty to look at; we can lose time in the act of telling it, the clock beguiles and enchants. Perhaps this is another aspect of time and its passing. It is seductive, it charms us into believing we have ample amounts of it and as a result we are at times a bit profligate in its use. A good book in the reading of it also beguiles and enchants and is also a “chronophage” of sorts, though at the end we, hopefully, know more than just the number of hours consumed. For some the “ages” of their lives are marked by books that give their names to aspects of their personal history. They go through a “Beatrix Potter” phase, perhaps, or a “Fitzgerald” phase.

Iliad VIII 245-253 in codex F205

There was an article in this weekend’s Boston Globe, “Looking at ‘The Iliad’ and seeing ourselves,” about how the present moment shapes our understanding of the literature of the past. The specific book in question is Homer’s Iliad, but the principle is true for any book. When reading a story it is important to be aware of the setting. One aspect of setting is time, but time is a bit tricky, it operates on many levels, there is the time day, the time of year, and the time in history. A story takes place in a certain time, the eighteenth century, for example, but it also takes place in the afternoon of a day in summer. In most books historical time is constant, there are exceptions, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine for example and other science fiction stories like it, that move around in time, but most stories occupy at most a single lifetime. Events in the story happen at different times of day or during different seasons, but the whole story moves through a specific period of time.

Sometimes stories are set in the past in order to comment on the present, or at least the present of the author at the time the story was written. Readers reading that story have to be aware of the historical context (the events taking place when the story was written) and the historical setting (the historical events surrounding the period of time in which the story takes place). But there is a third factor the reader must take into account and that is what is happening in the reader’s present and how the reader understands the past, both the past as it existed for the writer and the past as it exists in the story.

I remember reading The Once and Future King for the first time. The book retells the King Arthur legend. Arthur lived about 300 AD, but everyone in the story behaves like an English gentleman of the fifteenth century. So when T. H. White retells the story he sets it not in the time when Arthur lived, but in the age that informs Arthur’s and his knights’ behavior. This gave me some trouble, because I knew Arthur did not live in the late Middle Ages even if he behaved in the stories as though he did. I had the same problem with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. On the other side of the coin Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union did not trouble me, though they were playing similar games with history. Perhaps this is a third element of time the reader must acknowledge, the extent to which her or his knowledge of history as it happened can be suspended so that the story can have its way with it.

But this is not what the article was getting at when it talked about the way we read the literature of the past. Katherine Powers, who wrote the article, is suggesting that how we understand the events of The Iliad is shaped by the events of our own time. There was a film version of Euripides’ Trojan Women that was made in the 1970’s. The play presents Euripides’ view of war. He was using the Trojan War to comment on the conflicts of his day. The film was using Euripides’ presentation of the Trojan War to comment on the Vietnam War. Perhaps Euripides would have shared these views, perhaps not. Powers suggests that modern readers of The Iliad see the story not as a tale of heroism and glory, but of the futility of war and the arrogance of some of those that wage it. She wonders to what extent this is a modern reshaping of Homer’s tale that violates Homer’s intent. But she also points out that Agamemnon is a dubious general at best, and that Homer created him that way and that Achilles’ concerns are not entirely unfounded. She points out that some modern readers see in this poem a commentary on war that is relevant today and speaks to present day concerns.

As readers I suppose we are captured by time. We must fight with time to find the time to read in the first place. We must look at the times being depicted in what we read and shape our understanding of those times in light of what we know of how those times played out and what is true for the time in which we live. We must recognize that how we understand the time may not be how the author understood the time and we must make some decisions about what we will concede to the author. We may enjoy stories that involve knights engaging each other in jousts by the roadside, but we may not be willing to concede to others the right to pursue similar interests in the present day. We may be able to enjoy a story about magicians shaping the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars without being able to take it seriously as even a remote commentary on the history of the time. We accept it in fun and fancy, not in fact. Time may consume the moment but we in our choices may determine how the meal will be seasoned.

The Reader
Jean Honoré Fragonard


Wondering Where the Lions Are
Bruce Cockburn


Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red
Piet Mondrian

There was an article recently in the New York Times, “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” about boredom. Fredrick Nietzsche said that “Boredom is a necessary precondition to creativity” and perhaps there is truth in this. The article suggests that boredom is hard work and that when we are doing nothing the creative centers of our brains are hard at work imagining things, being, as Nietzsche suggested, creative. The song is about finding “ecstasy,” overwhelming joy. That joy is found in simple experiences of the natural world, watching waves or smelling the trees in a forest. Perhaps boredom is represented by the lions that do not frighten him so much anymore.

The paintings by Mondrian are found boring by some because not much seems to be happening and even after close study and scrutiny some still find the paintings boring because they just aren’t to everyone’s taste. This suggests other aspects of boredom that have to do with the cultivated mind and individual likes and dislikes. Many do not like opera the first time they hear it, but many that did not like opera on a first hearing go on to become quite enthusiastic about it once they have learned something about how it works and are exposed to the music as performed by those that know how to perform it well. For many opera is something you grow into and perhaps the same is true of Mondrian’s paintings, they need to be grown into.

Of course it must be remembered that one can like opera without liking all operas and perhaps the same is true with painting, that one can enjoy some abstract paintings without enjoying all abstract paintings. The issue is not one of exposure so much as not having a taste for certain things and this is true of people with the most cultivated tastes. There are of course others who feign an interest in something because they are trying to impress others. No one, whatever the stage of cultural development they live at, enjoys everything. Out tastes are defined as much by what we do not like as they are by what we do like.

The Piet Mondrian – Nike Dunk Low SB

On the other hand it is difficult to know what will excite people and some things, like a Mondrian painting, that might bore a person if they were encountered in a museum might excite that same person if they were found on a tennis shoe. If we are attracted at all to the Mondrian painting it is probably the design that we find attractive and the design does not have to be found solely on a canvas to excite our interest, in fact a design that does not attract us in one venue may attract us in some other. As with fine dining, presentation is an important part of design.

I suppose the whole issue of what is art and why we ought to appreciate it is at the heart of boredom. There are aspects of culture that we feel guilty for not appreciating and other aspects of culture for which we feel the need to suppress our appreciation. In some parts of the world sports are at the heart of one’s cultural experience in others it may be the ballet. But in any culture there are things folks feel compelled to know and other things that are more discretionary. In America it is more acceptable, I suppose, to be bored at the opera than at a football game.

The Human Condition
René Magritte

This painting plays with the idea of art imitating life to the extent that it is difficult to see where “life” ends and the painting begins. But is it the purpose of art to imitate life. I remember reading somewhere that E. B. White (writing under a pseudonym) once said that “art should not only “not” imitate life, it had better be a helluva lot more interesting.” I do not know if I remember correctly and I have not been able to verify the quote anywhere, still the quote is apt. A work of art may be true to life, but to keep the work from boring its audience the artist is selective about what is put into the work and what is kept out.

A Young Hare
Albrecht Durer

The choice of what to put in does not need to be “exciting in and of itself, it just has to have a quality about it that holds our interest. A painting of a rabbit could be maudlin or “cute” but it can also been done from life and catch our interest. The rabbit in the painting seems a serious fellow deep in thought. I think what attracts me is the level of realism, the texture of the fur, the facial expression, the tension in the body. But the point is simplicity is often exciting and capable of holding our interest. Perhaps the ability to find pleasure in simple things is an essential life skill, one that frees us from all the busyness and activity that goes on around us. Often what makes a good reader is the ability to see beyond the plot of a story, to see the well drawn details that help establish the reality of the story without contributing that much to what happens in the story. In some stories (Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles comes to mind) the scenery and the weather and the “actions” of the natural world reinforce or give insight into what is happening inside the characters.

I think that we read stories, poems, plays, and essays (and whatever else that is out there requiring us to decipher symbols on a page) to help us answer questions about life and how to live it well. Perhaps we become bored with a story when it stops answering questions that are relevant to our own existence. A story may be a good story for others without being a good story for me, or it may not be a story I need for this stage in my life. There was a review in the Guardian recently of a new biography of Michel Montaigne, “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.” Montaigne’s life was radically changed by an encounter with death. He lived in a time when death was a much more common occurrence than it is for us, at least on a personal level. And, as is often the case with things we have in abundance, he took death for granted, until he had his accident.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
Thomas de Leu

Montaigne went on to invent the essay (well he didn’t really invent the essay so much as give it a name). He used the form to answer questions, how should we live, what should we do with the time that we have? Primarily, he thought, we need to stop worrying about death. But he also thought we should read more, though not remember that much of what we read (we must wade through a lot of nonsense I suppose before we find things of real value), take things slowly, be curious. His essays help us understand friendship, the importance of learning from the experience of others, and knowing the difference between those that would deceive and those who can be trusted. But can someone find these essays interesting if she or he is not already aware of the importance of coming to grips with the issues the essays address. Often what bores us is not the work itself, but our own immaturity that blinds us to the need to confront the problems the work confronts.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro
20th Century Fox

This clip from the film The Snows of Kilimanjaro raises another issue of story telling. How does the storyteller make a static scene interesting? I suppose this is an especially serious problem for the filmmaker. How do we hold the audience’s interest in a man in bed who is slowly dying? A large part of the responsibility falls on the actors who must capture the audience almost solely with their words and the emotions that can be packed into the words. What we watch, I imagine, is the behavior, is it true, is this how a person would act and speak and “be” under these circumstances? Because under the surface of the action, such as it is, is the same question Montaigne raises, how do we face our own mortality without “worrying about death.” If a scene like the one in the film is boring, it is either because we do not feel our own mortality or because the actors failed to convince us they were confronting their own.

In a good story it is not the action entirely that holds our interest. A good story, for me anyway, is one we can come back to and read again and still draw something from the experience. Where all a story has to offer is a plot, a series of events, unfortunate or otherwise, there is nothing to hold our interest on a second reading. If the action of the story is presented exceptionally well it may succeed in arousing our interest on one or two more readings, but once we get to the point we can “tell the story” to ourselves without needing the book there will be nothing left to draw us back in.

But in a well told story where real questions of human existence are being confronted, where the characters confront these questions in a meaningful and honest way, there will always be something to hold our interest. We are not reading because we have been captured by what people do but because we have been captured by the people themselves and they hold us, at times perhaps, against our will.