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Books for Rethinking Time (Recommendations)

28 | 04 | 2020

Extra time during a global contingency might be put to good use reading about… time.

Extra time during a global contingency might be put to good use reading about… time.

—Frank Zappa

Time (along with love and death) is among the themes most recurrent in art. It’s a dimension that absolutely envelops our lives. We live and die within time. And beyond that, we’re made of time.

Our temporality determines our brief passage through the world and, as a phenomenon of human perception, it’s able to come and go, to disappear and reappear, to be ruthless at times. At other times, it can be wise. Time can stretch and contract. These are all qualities which, beyond our infatuation with its linear conception, many cultures and traditions throughout history have revealed to us. Here one thinks of the peculiar and elegant Maya handling of time. It’s been extensively studied and pondered through initiatives like Human in the Cosmos.  

Perhaps this is a good time to devote this dislocated time to reading, to opening all those books  we’ve so often abandoned precisely because we didn’t find the time to read them. It might even be a good opportunity to read a little bit about time itself, that disembodied protagonist of our lives. Above all, it’s a good opportunity to play with time and to rethink its essence.

 Here are five recommendations for books about time:

Confessions – Augustine of Hippo

In his Confessions, the philosopher devoted several reflections to the nature of time. For him, it was a divine element. Specifically, Book XI is one of the most dazzling philosophical treatises on time from the entirety of ancient Greco-Latin culture. In it, Augustine speaks of three types of time: past, present and future. For St. Augustine, each of them exists uniquely and necessarily in the present. His treatise also speaks of how, when we try to hold onto time, it escapes our hands. “What is time, then? If no one asks me, I know. But if I try to explain time to the one who asks me, I don’t know.”

In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust

An ode to time’s elasticity, above all, the book is an ode to the great witness of time: memory. (In seven volumes, it will undoubtedly steal hours and hours of your own time). The novel, written between 1908 and 1922, is among the most important of the 20th century, not just in French literature, but in world literature, too. It’s the story—with a decidedly autobiographical slant—of Marcel, a young man who seeks to be a writer, and whose memories flood the tale in unexpected ways.

A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

The always clear sensitivity of the physicist and cosmologist is here coupled with his scientific approach. The result is a history of time. It should be noted that his intention toward brevity was as paradoxical as it was ambitious. A classic and one of the most generous within the genre of popular science, Hawking begins with a concept of time to explain where the universe came from–and where it’s going. He speaks to non-experts about the Big Bang, black holes, gravity, and the nature of time, and all with the agility and eloquence of a genuinely great storyteller.

From Eternity to Here – Sean M. Carroll

Carroll is a Philadelphia-born theoretical physicist and professor. His book, a classic on time, poses this phenomenon as an arrow moving in one direction. The question, then, is why? In a reader-friendly text, he speaks of physics, entropy, time travel, and even the meaning of human life. The book begins with science but turns to philosophy, inviting us to understand one of the questions that time is uniquely able to ask us of ourselves: just why do we exist?

Atonement – Ian McEwan

McEwan is probably one of the most talented living writers, and Atonement is his masterpiece. Although the failed love story told by the novel is not  about  time, the element of time acts as a narrative technique: the genius of McEwen’s pen is in his ability to narrate a segment of time, over and over, through the eyes of multiple characters, making the book a brilliant game of temporalities. Finally, the anecdote of the story complete—the couple who never manage to consummate their love for reasons beyond themselves—witness time as something terrible, when but a few seconds were enough to change a person’s life.

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