Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Time – Eva Hoffman ***

In this book, Eva Hoffman diagnoses a problem (particularly in the West) where, over recent years, we have been trying to squeeze more and more into ever shorter periods of time, both at work and in our leisure time. It is as if, she says, we have felt we need to battle against the unstoppable passage of time, as if we feel time is always against us, and that we have to constantly remain busy in order to live worthwhile lives.
We look at the cultural and technological reasons for why this has happened, and consider findings of neuroscience that support Hoffman’s view that many of us need to slow down, overcome our preoccupation with time, take life at a more reasonable pace, and rediscover things like ‘quality time’ with no fixed boundaries we spend with those close to us.
One of the ways of thinking about all of this is the following. Have you ever had the experience of struggling with a difficult concept or idea, and giving up on it in a state of confusion – but of coming back to the idea the day next and finding you understand it much better? Chances are you have, and it will have been because, provided you got enough sleep overnight, your brain had a chance to process and make sense of the information while you were resting. As Hoffman explains, when we overwork ourselves or try and fit too much in, believing we don’t want to waste time or spend time unproductively, we actually deprive ourselves of the necessary ‘downtime’ we need to properly deal with, unconsciously, what we come across in life. This can mean we lose a sense of perspective, and find it more difficult to reflect on the past. Ultimately, it is sometimes good to set aside time to doing nothing in particular, and we should always get sufficient rest.
It is a message that most of us can probably agree with, and that is conveyed well in the book. My problem was that the science was sometimes fairly summary, and I didn’t like the number of times Freud and psychoanalysis were brought into the discussion. There references mean the book just doesn’t read like a convincing scientific exploration of the subject.
This is still an interesting philosophical reflection on the way we perceive time in modern society, though, and will give you pause for thought – and I did enjoy reading it. It is worth reading for its undoubtedly important message, but the science underpinning the message could have been done better.
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Review by Matt Chorley

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