These peculiarities prompt the misleadingly simple question, what does time mean? Countless thinkers have struggled to answer it, though Bishop Berkeley’s admission to a young Samuel Johnson in 1729 is on point: “We are confounded and perplexed about time.” I offer this 18th-century European observation because the Enlightenment offers a unique moment to consider temporality, in theory and practice. Enlightenment philosophers engaged in vigorous debates about time and argued several positions. Consider even the barest of descriptions. For Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, time is not separate, but rather constitutive of human experience: time is not a thing, nor is it an event. For Isaac Newton, time is a separate structure through which events occur in a sequence, leading to the phrase, “Newtonian time” (and also leading to a public spat — through Newton’s acolyte, Samuel Clarke — with Leibniz). René Descartes, John Locke, and David Hume hedge: to understand time, the mind must acknowledge it.
Yet time was not merely, in the 18th century, a matter of heated philosophical debate. It was also a political, economic, and cultural concern, materially manifested in clocks and calendars. Alongside these philosophical debates, Enlightenment instrument makers and politicians embraced time as techne. Pedometer clocks — Enlightenment Fitbits — were popular late in the century. In Britain, the marine chronometer was developed by the carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison to measure time and celestial navigation to determine longitude. And the implications of Harrison’s instrument astound: the marine chronometer made British naval power possible, including especially the nation’s inordinate wealth from the transatlantic slave trade. And the politician Lord Chesterfield managed to push through a law adopting the Gregorian calendar (almost 200 years after the Catholic Church devised it to regularize the celebration of Easter), a feat of time management that resulted in 11 days disappearing in the year 1752. The ticktock of a clock, the turned pages of an almanac — these technologies became a way of understanding one’s self within the lived world. As my brief discussion adumbrates, the Enlightenment staged myriad scientific, technological, and print revolutions, resulting in experiences of time that shaped who and what we thought we could be.
Three new books take up the implications of how time works in the 18th century. Collectively and individually, these books grapple with what time is, how it is experienced, and why time matters. They share an investment in the figurative qualities of time, qualities that resist its all-too-familiar instrumentalization. Yet these three books also offer new and differing models of how time makes meaning, considering, in order, the apprehension of scientific knowledge, the materiality of language and the duration of time, and books as objects that encourage us to reimagine time and our place within — and outside — of it. Time, even with its seemingly unforgiving rigors and unflappable duration, turns out to have an enduring and enabling plasticity.
I. Restless Time
When I lived in New York City in the ’90s, I played a daily game with myself. I refused to wear a watch because I looked at it too frequently; I felt like wearing a watch reduced my time to the ticktock of its hands. Instead, I went about my day slyly noting where clocks were in each of the spaces I occupied. Little clocks, big clocks. I developed the art of discreetly angling my head to read someone’s wristwatch. My game was so naïve — stupid, really. There I was thinking I was opting out of mechanized time by refusing to wear a watch, still utterly beholden to its power, uneasy as my eye was constantly casting about, landing on the scores of machines that would tell me what time it was, how much time I had “left,” how much time I had to “fill.” To think that this was decades before the data-capturing Garmins and Apple Watches and smartphones that adhere to our bodies.
The central image of Jessica Riskin’s recent book, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago University Press, 2016), is what she calls “the restless clock,” a philosophical conceit drawn from a timepiece. A historian of science, Riskin turns to this instrument of time measurement as a metaphor for the natural world — how it operates, who controls it, and what it reveals. At issue is the scientific question, what is the role of agency in nature? What, in other words, makes nature tick? With the 18th century at the heart of her study, Riskin looks back and forward, opening with descriptions of clocks in gardens, palaces, and particularly churches beginning in the mid-14th century. Riskin’s interest in machine-like objects brought us her earlier work on 18th-century automata and early iterations of artificial intelligence. Especially memorable is a mechanical “defecating duck” that seemed to eat grain and corn, and then produce excrement. This duck, for Riskin, highlights the simultaneous similarity and difference of machine and life.
The restless clock gets Riskin into similar conceptual territory, unpeeling the seeming facade between instruments and experience, and her coverage on medieval clocks is well taken. To think of time and time passing as a solely modern phenomenon, and one commensurate with anxiety, is to misunderstand deeply the history of time: machines have been measuring our days — and shaping our understanding of the natural world — for centuries. These clocks were not merely clocks. They were also automata, that is, human-like and animal-like machines. And they fluttered and twirled and noised their way into the air high above church squares and palace yards. Many of them still capture the imaginations of tourists who cluster beneath their edifices.
Riskin shows us that clocks operate as a powerful trope in scientific discourse, enabling questions about the body and the soul, matter and spirit, and mechanism and agency, and pointing to the idea of nature as either passive or, more radically, active. In the passive sense, natural phenomena are like the inner workings of a clock — that is, they progress mechanistically because they are first animated by an external agent. The clockmaker winds up the watch; the divine sets nature in motion. The idea that a machine such as these clocks had no agency emerged in the Reformation. Through this clock metaphor, the natural world was understood as fundamentally passive, not active.
By the mid-17th century, the trope of clockwork was commonly used as a figure for intelligibility. For Descartes, as for John Locke, Robert Boyle, and George Cheyne, the analogy to clockwork served the important purpose of claiming that natural phenomena were made up of material parts. To compare living beings to clocks fell in line with arguments from design — the living world as passive machinery subject to the ordering and movement of the divine. Seventeenth-century physico-theology emerged as a way to insist upon the study of second causes. Early science did not, could not challenge the existence of God, but was instead a means of amplifying and praising Christian theology.
The story that has persisted over the centuries is bound to the clock metaphor, namely, the idea that nature is a clock wound up by an external agent. The spark of life is thus understood as, and must remain, external to natural phenomena. Riskin calls this a founding myth of the scientific revolution. We have inherited this bifurcation in our scientific understandings to this day: cells in biology do not desire, even though they move in ways that biologists do not (yet) understand. The language of scientific protocols resists assigning agency to natural phenomena in large part because to do so threatens to anthropomorphize these processes, even though that same language demonstrates the inability of this divide to capture their object of study.
And this is where Riskin’s book takes a fascinating and important turn. There was an alternative understanding of clockwork that contained, rather than excluded, the idea of agency within nature. “The restless clock” of her volume’s title is less a scientific technology than a metaphor used to imagine that nature has agency — the spark of life — imbued within it. The natural world, in this narrative, is not merely a set of passive parts put into motion by an omnipotent deity, but instead a machine infused with, in Leibniz’s words, “vis viva” or living force. In fact, Leibniz is the hero of The Restless Clock. For Ruskin, Leibniz imagines the natural world as a clock that itself has spirit, agency, and perception. Leibniz’s “restless clock” does not signify regularity and precision; it connotes “disquiet, unease, exertion, conflict.” If animals are machines, then they are “‘entangled,’ waxing and waning, enfolding and unfolding, ‘frail’ and yet capable of self-maintenance.” Leibniz’s theories find full expression in the Monadologie, but the point of interest for Ruskin is that the so-called building blocks of the natural world have within them a life force that cannot be imagined separately from God. For Leibniz, this is what makes living things tick — nothing external to them, but an internal, patterned process that unfolds over time. And for Ruskin, the restless clock of the Enlightenment gives us a way to recircuit our scientific history to take up the original questions about agency that these practices so easily and so persistently ignored. A restless clock reminds us of the powers of instrumentalization while also giving us a way to imagine nature as itself always just beyond measurement.
II. Time Suspended
During the fever of sixth grade, a classmate quietly brought a copy of Judy Blume’s Wifey to school that she had swiped from her older sister. The rule of this lending library was specific: you could only borrow it for a day at time. When I got my day, I began reading in the afternoon after school, instead of watching Hogan’s Heroes, hid it during the evening when my parents might be curious, and retreated to my room, where I read under a dim light until the dim light of twilight made its appearance. I went to school exhausted but triumphant, knowing the whole story and ready to hand off the paperback to the next girl.
Why did I stay up reading? Part of it was I needed to return the book the next morning; part of it was the racy sex scenes and adultness of the novel; but part of it was the sense that I was in another time, out of time, even beyond time. And that feeling of suspended time is something I’ve always sought to recapture in my all-night reading. There was the time I read Slattery in the stale summer heat of a Chicago night; Belinda on my cheap, creaky futon in New York City; The Passions on an overnight train to Venice; and The Pharmacist’s Mate propped up on a pillow in a London bathtub while my ex-husband slept in the hotel bed.
My sense of reading and duration and other-timeliness is hardly unique. It’s rather quotidian, in fact, and coheres with the Romantic notion that literature — especially the Romantic lyric brought to us by Wordsworth and Coleridge — offers an escape from daily cares and the sort of instrumentalized time I tried so unsuccessfully to avoid in graduate school. Ben Dolnick in The New York Times just reminded us of the pleasure of binging novels rather than Netflix.
In Feeling Time: Duration, the Novel, and Eighteenth-Century Sensibility (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), Amit S. Yahav turns to the relationship between a sense of time and the experience of reading. Yahav’s central contention is that the idea of reading as a suspension of time comes not from the Romanticists, but from the earlier 18th-century novel of sensibility. Yahav reminds us that over 30 years ago Paul Ricoeur conceptualized narrative as mediating temporal experience, often as a way of understanding the representation of consciousness. Mrs. Dalloway offers Ricoeur a vivid case study in which the titular character reflects upon time and its durational effects. But she asks a different question that challenges us to think about time, narrative, and the materiality of language: how do sentimental novels utilize sound and touch to reimagine narrative duration as qualitative rather than quantitative, for characters and readers alike? Yahav calls this “the sensibility chronotope.”
Let me back up for a moment — turn back the clock, as it were.
Why is time so wrapped up with the novel in the first place? If Riskin reminds us that clocks, as objects and metaphors, populated the European landscape from the 14th century on, then it is important to recognize that developments in watchmaking made them ubiquitous by the close of the 18th century. Stuart Sherman, for one, has talked about chronometric technology and literary form, imagining for us how palpable the sense of time passing from the present into the past had become. Time slipping away. Indeed, Laurence Sterne’s great novel, Tristram Shandy, dramatizes the massive dissonance between the passing of time in one’s life — it even opens with a winding of the clock gone awry, a frontal sex joke at the heart of Tristram’s patriarchal anxiety — and time passing, between the clock ticking and a sense of time. By Volume 1 chapter 14, six weeks have passed in the life of Tristram-the-author, while not a day in the life of Tristram-the-subject has been “lived” in print.
And it is this sense — the lived part of time, its duration — that Yahav wants to pull out and study as an object both conceptual and material. Samuel Richardson was famous for his “writing to the moment” aesthetic — taken as verisimilitude and ridiculousness by contemporaries. Clarissa takes up a year in its writing (and arguably its reading, coming in just shy of 1,000,000 words), with scene after scene of epistolary immediacy. This is the author who blushed at the sight of his three novels taking up so much shelf space, an embarrassment that did little to curtail his textual production.
For Yahav, to read Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa is to experience the duration that any moral judgment requires. These are novels that, rather than focusing merely on psychology, hold action at their centers: timing, that is, when things happen, is utterly crucial to what can happen. The lesson Richardson teaches, particularly in the tragedy of Clarissa, is that when characters read and readers read they simultaneously engage in prospection and durational judgment. In the experience of reading, be it character or reader, what might happen and what it means ever change, and, most crucially, never turn out to be quite right.
To skip ahead, a few final words on Tristram Shandy and the materiality of language that Yahav brings to her understanding of duration. Words are, in line with our shared ideas about sensibility, vehicles for shared emotions, whether they communicate or elicit them. The conversations between the brothers Toby and Walter Shandy, for example, evoke musicology’s concept of “inner time-sense” and elocutionary rhythm. They together shake their heads as they debate about the effects of childbearing. Sterne’s Tristram notes, “certainly since shaking of heads came into fashion, never did two heads shake together, in concert, from two such different springs.” Yahav draws our attention to this material physicality of time — the beats, the movements, the rhythms — because these are the mechanisms by which Sterne links his characters to his readers. There may be a clock ticking away, but Sterne’s novel pauses it to let us think about how a clock’s measurement doesn’t always match our own sense of duration.
III. Making Time
Which brings me to my third attempt to discuss time — making time for time.
Whenever I enter Politics & Prose, the best independent bookstore in DC, I hear their T-shirt’s slogan in my mind: “So many books, so little time.” It’s attributed to Frank Zappa and, while the resignation of the phrase captures a wistfulness I share, I inevitably ignore the warning of that voice and march out with a haul of newly purchased books. Some I read straight away; others go into piles tucked high up on shelves, waiting for when I decide I have time; still others get forgotten altogether.
I read for a living, so it seems particularly ridiculous and indulgent to think that I have so little time. But mine is not a unique predilection, as Christina Lupton’s Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) disarmingly and persuasively shows.
Lupton’s study is part book history, part systems theory, part biographical (and autobiographical — my own essay faintly echoes her structure) study. It seems impossible to use any of these to think about the other, but Lupton accomplishes just that, forging an innovative and exciting way to understand not only the activity of reading, but also the lived, temporal experience that the codex enables. Books have value and meaning well beyond their immediate content, and Lupton shows us how and why.
The printed book invites two contradictory views about reading — and has since its proliferation in the 18th-century British literary marketplace. On the one hand, reading a book is rewarding. The time required reading a book is repaid, albeit in a different currency, whether that be imaginative, educational, or affective. Yet on the other, reading is diverting — that is, it is pleasurable and takes one away from things — and as a consequence lures one away from spiritual and economic labor. Fundamentally, Lupton asks, what role did reading, understood in this way, play in the 18th century’s understanding of its “economy of hours”?
The insight Lupton brings to these questions is that readers are not always readers. You and I, we are book readers, but we aren’t always book readers. We do other things with books, too: buy them; stack them; page through them; decide which to read slowly, which to read quickly; carry them around in our bags, weighty and unread; put them in boxes and forget them. Traditional book history counts books as units circulating from one person to another, but implicitly assumes their status of being read. Unread books show up in databases bearing the same rank as read books. But isn’t there a difference? Lupton instructs us that “reading shows up as an activity that involves irregular, stolen, and anticipated moments as often as it does routine or synchronized or profitable ones.” A history of reading, Lupton argues, must take into account the fitfulness of reading as an activity and the extent to which this irregularity fuels “the dream of revolt against those regimens of productivity”: “the time reading takes is difficult to parse historically.”
The solution Lupton provides draws upon systems theory. Niklas Luhmann and later Michel Serres enable Lupton to talk about the reading systems that make us readers, reading systems that are structured through various conceptions of time. The turn to system theory, Lupton admits, seems rather nervy given that actors are practically excavated from such models. But the discussion of what a reader is — that is, most of the time, we are not book readers and being one is not a continuous identity — sharpens the idea that the concept of a reader is fictional and also fundamentally inadequate as an analytic. Of interest to Lupton is the literary book reader, which we become when we read books under temporal conditions that are not clock-bound. This is not the qualitative duration that Yahav describes in relation to 18th-century reading, but a more capacious rendering of temporal possibility.
What time and books show us is that the being in time the form of a book makes possible is fundamentally radical. (And I am well aware that you are reading this on a screen of some sort.) The time of book reading refuses the instrumentalism of clock time, which correlates to duty, industry, economics. The time of and for books is literary in character, and queer, too. The time of and for books is elusive, “temporal zones that hover just beyond the horizon of homogenous-continuous time; never quite now, or then, or around the corner.” Citing José Esteban Muñoz on queerness as a form of temporality, Lupton’s ethical call to rethinking time, as elusive as the project may be, is wrapped up in radical optimism; the times of books are “sources of hope, of queerness, of resistance to the present, and of belief in the future.”
Reading and the Making of Time is, among its many fine qualities, an intimate book. Reading it is like listening to someone who cares about books, whose reading runs deep and wide, whose thoughts turn over in ways you wouldn’t expect. This is not an academic book, though it is that. What I mean is that Lupton brings to life a cast of 18th-century characters all preoccupied with what reading meant, what reading could mean, in the space of a day or an evening, over a lifetime, or not at all.
And what historical material Lupton’s archive showcases, comprising diaries and journals of 18th-century readers as well as 18th-century texts that anticipate being read — or neglected. Lupton brings us to the intricacies, promises, and disappointments of nonlinear time inextricable from book reading. There are Catherine Talbot (a Blue Stocking), William Temple (a vicar in Cornwall), Thomas Turner (a grocer and parish councilor in Sussex), who variously protect “Sundays” to read, though Talbot rages in her unpublished writings, including letters to her friend, Elizabeth Carter, about all of the tedious domestic duties that keep her from reading. Lupton also calls us to reflect on what reading over a lifetime might mean, turning, especially, to the brilliant Elizabeth Carter. Carter’s intelligence and learning were stunning, her erudition rivaling, even surpassing that of any man in the academic establishment. And unlike her friend Talbot, Carter had relatively more choice in how she spent her time throughout the day. For Carter, also an extraordinary translator, reading was rereading. She writes to Talbot, “there is full as much pleasure in reading a very excellent book the fifth or sixth time, as if one had it fresh from the press.”
There is also desultory reading in Lupton’s book, figured through the working marriage of the writers Elizabeth and Richard Griffith. In the Griffiths, we see reading books as picking them up and putting them down, paging through them and skipping ahead. Reading sequentially is only one possibility. Rearrangement and sampling are equally viable. And if by a miracle of intellectual virtuosity and insight, Lupton uses the occasion of the codex’s flexible temporal structure — pointing to different futures and different pasts — to think about that seemingly most inflexible of narratives, the marriage plot, as one that can be as open to temporal discontinuity as the codex itself.
Lupton closes with utopias — famously nowhere, but less considered to be temporally inflected. The future, that is, a better, more equitable future, preoccupies both Elizabeth Inchbald and William Godwin in the revolutionary decade of the 1790s. The printed book, in contrast to all the other media available, makes palpable that the time for reading is still to come — that the world of reading books is a world still to come. In this, Lupton offers a simultaneously ethical and political commitment to book reading as time consuming and productive, though not in the instrumental ways of economic gain. This is what we ought to promise our children and our students — a world that gives more people more time to be readers.
IV. Time, the Last
In Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” at the center of his La Sombra del Viento (2001; trans. The Shadow of the Wind), each book waits for a person to choose it, a moment that ensures the life of the chooser is forever intertwined with the book and the life of the book is reignited through this bonding. The Borgesian quality of Zafón’s architecture and the ensuing temporal sprawl of the intrigue attending the chooser who seeks the also-forgotten author capture and literalize a particularity of the reading experience that resists the instrumentalization of modern timekeeping — the enabling of different sorts of time at the moment of readerly engagement. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Zafrón’s novel resonated so widely at a time when we were sliding off the edge of Y2K madness. But Zafón’s cemetery of forgotten books seems also so vividly appropriate to what Lupton urges us to see: that the book is “an object that takes, gives, and occupies time unevenly.”
Together, Riskin, Yahav, and Lupton teach us that we use time and reading to make sense of ourselves to ourselves and others. One could say that their shared investment in the European Enlightenment testifies to the period’s explanatory power in our modern moments. But more vitally, their historical work, specifically and jointly, urges us to take up these historical narratives for the important and potentially revolutionary alternatives that they make possible, giving us the conceptual and political tools to face our own world where, in the famous utterance of Hamlet, time is out of joint.
Tita Chico is professor of English at the University of Maryland. She is the author, most recently, of The Experimental Imagination: Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment (Stanford, 2018).