BIG IDEAS//small books

Eva Hoffman




Trade Paperback

224 Pages



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Time has always been the great given, the element that establishes the governing facts of human fate that cannot be circumvented, deconstructed, or wished away. More every day, time can be tampered with in ways that affect how we live, the textures of experience, and the sense of what it is to be human. What is the nature of time in this time? Why is it that even as humans live longer than ever before, it seems as though we have ever less of this basic good? What effects do the hyperfast technologies—computers, video games, instant communications—have on our inner lives and bodies? By examining biology and mind on evermore microscopic levels, what are we learning about the process and parameters of human time? Hoffman regards our relationship to time—from jet lag to aging, sleep to cryogenic freezing—in this broad, eye-opening meditation on life’s essential medium and its contemporary challenges.


Praise for Time

"'When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second,' Albert Einstein said, by way of explaining relativity. 'When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour.' Such a notion resonates throughout Eva Hoffman's slender reflection on the chronological conundrum, Time . . . Writing about Freud, who believed 'not only that our ephemeral nature has to be accepted, but that it is a guarantee of human meaning,' she cites his meeting with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, 'who experienced a terror of mortality and who disconsolately felt that the transience of all things human meant that, ultimately, they had no value; they didn't count.' Here, she deftly dramatizes the essential contradiction: How do we find meaning in what doesn't last? . . . Of course, if making sense of our days is ultimately what time—and Time—is about, we face new challenges amid the acceleration of contemporary life, where '[s]peed becomes its own self-justifying value.' In the last of her book's four sections, Hoffman considers where this leaves us, returning, not surprisingly, to the ethos of slowness with which she was raised. '[I]f we do not want to live meaninglessly,' she suggests, 'then we need to give ourselves over sometimes to the time of inwardness and contemplation, to empathy and aesthetic wonder. We need to mull and muse, to reflect on our experience and interpret it. . . . We need occasionally to go with the flow.' Hoffman's right, for without that stillness, that reflection, we lose a key component of our humanity. It may be true that we live in time, but time lives within us also, moving through us as we move through it. We define it, for ourselves and for our culture; we decide to what we want to turn our minds. That, I suppose, makes for another kind of relativity, regardless of whether we find meaning in the moment or choose to live unreconciled."—David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times

"This book is something of a departure for Hoffman, who is best known for her writing on the Polish-Jewish community in which she was raised, though it begins with the shock of how time accelerated once she emigrated westward. In Krakow, 'there were great careers to be made, no glamorous possibilities of upward mobility or the seductive temptations of acquiring nothing much to hurry towards.' Time was not money in Poland; in Canada and the United States, it was. Hoffman examines this philosophically fraught subject in unpretentious, clear chapters: asking how time affects our bodies, our minds, our cultures, and, finally, how time has accelerated and changed with the advent of the computer and the concept of 'immediacy'—or, as she puts it, 'what pace and density of stimulus we need in order to feel that something "interesting" is happening.' As a writer who is also an accomplished pianist, Hoffman is well qualified to analyze just what happens when time is unduly quickened (ADD-ridden children addicted to video games) or slowed down (the cultivated boredom of an Oblomov), and she ends her book with a description of contemporary whose 'techniques of reiterating with minute variations, short musical units, can be seen as both a way of slowing down time and of registering certain processes which may take place both in computers and in our bodies—the repetition, replication and recombination of microscopic, modular units of matters and motion.' Better than clocks or calendars, music can order a nameless flux that neither religion, with its feasts and holy days, nor technology, with its promise to abolish temporality, can ever fully reckon."—Benjamin Moser, Harper’s Magazine

"Time is not what it used to be. Once a flowing river whose current we passively monitored, time is now more properly understood as something constructed by the brain and personalised by culture. We have relationships with time; we fight it and manipulate it. Into this arena steps Eva Hoffman with her poetically scientific and austerely titled Time. Hoffman is on an exploration to become intimate with time, motivated by her sense that our interaction with time has changed . . . Hoffman covers a lot of ground, from physics (why time flows in only one direction) to biology (the circadian rhythm and sleep) to neuroscience (how temporality is constructed by the brain). She addresses questions of time and consciousness, including the uniquely human ability to envision large vistas of past or future . . . Hoffman also investigates individual differences in how people treat time (those who leave parties early versus those who have to be shooed out at the end) as well as cultural differences (communities in which haste amounts to a breach of ethics, for instance). A recurring theme is that the human capacity to manipulate our environment ushers in new complexities to the basic biology of time. For example, while other animals age and die on a strict schedule, humans do everything in their power to control that timing. And the book is full of interesting thoughts: consider the different temporal experience of wild blueberry bushes, which live 13,000 years, and mayflies, which fulfill their earthly purpose in a lifespan of hours . . . The book argues convincingly that our relationship with time is changing drastically, portending real consequences for our quality of life . . . Hoffman is a lyrical writer, and her style is both congenial and calming. She labels herself a chronophobic and a chronophilic, but I see her more as a time connoisseur, sharply attuned to its subtleties. Time is strong both scientifically and sociologically, provoking endless contemplation. One sees that Hoffman desires to understand time—not to pin it lifelessly to a wall, but instead to cherish it."—David Eagleman, New Scientist

“Hoffman deftly tackles this complex topic in a highly readable and entertaining way . . . This is a book for readers interested in exploring the world around them or hoping to see their surroundings in a new light.  A fascinating and easy-to-read meditation on a deceptively simple concept."—Library Journal

"Time may be life's implacable constant, but it has undergone drastic and troubling revision in the modern age, argues this penetrating essay. Novelist and historian Hoffman analyzes the simultaneous surfeit and famine of time that faces contemporary society. Our lives, she argues, have grown longer, but we cram ever more work and activity into each multitasking moment. Meanwhile, she contends, technology has chopped up the flow of time into a succession of disjointed nanoseconds, while banishing the natural rhythms of diurnal and seasonal time and depositing us in a frenetic 24/7. Hoffman places the derangement of time at the root of many of modernity's discontents: it underlies the ethos of conspicuous exertion that tyrannizes our work lives, she writes, and perhaps induces our growing epidemic of attention deficit disorder, whose symptoms mimic the pattern of contemporary digital time. Hoffman's exploration ranges lucidly across neuroscience, psychoanalysis and modernist literature to plumb time's mysteries. Her approach is smart and informed, but also pensive and a bit melancholy, wary of what's lost in trying to manage and optimize time; even time's ravages of decay and death, she warns, are inextricably tied up with the meaning of life."—Publisher's Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

Let me begin with a confession: I have always been preoccupied by time. Whether this propensity was temperamental, or whether in some way it belonged to the place and historical moment in which I was grow­ing up, I am not sure. But I do know that it started early, and has continued throughout my adult life.
Perhaps, like the young Vladimir Nabokov, I was simply a kind of chronophobiac.1 Certainly, I was in­tensely and palpably aware of time’s existence and its ceaseless passage. Reading some childhood story, in which the ticking of a clock measures the silent
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  • Eva Hoffman

  • Eva Hoffman is the author of Lost in Translation: A Life In A New Language, Shtetl, and The Secret. Her essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Yale Review, and other publications.