The Book Is a Time Machine


When we are not actually holding them, books are things over which we like to wring our hands. They stand, in their very solidity, for what might be precarious and endangered in our brave newish world. Worries about the accelerated pace of everyday life, the diminution of attention spans, and the eroded boundary between work and leisure all animate—and get entangled in—the familiar lament over what Sven Birkerts called, in the subtitle of his 1994 book, the “fate of reading in an electronic age.” Talk of crisis intensifies, despite the obvious truth that communications of all kinds are significantly more textual—and more prolifically textual—than they were 50 years ago, and notwithstanding the enduring viability of commercial book publishing. We sense that we don’t read quite the way we used to, and that it matters.

Acceleration, distracted attention, and the death of leisure: all three diagnoses of the crisis of the moment hinge on time. Against the backdrop of the current cultural complaints, Christina Lupton, who teaches English literature at the University of Warwick, turns her attention to England during roughly the second half of the 18th century in an effort to explore the relationship between reading books and spending time. This historical move is unsurprising, not only because that’s where Lupton’s scholarly and critical expertise lies but also because the era of Enlightenment (broadly defined) in Western Europe has been the most frequent landing spot for book historians and media theorists looking for precedent dislocations of the written word that, today, are produced by electronic text transmission and the internet.

What makes Lupton’s thoughtful and learned new book, Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century, so interesting is not that she has recovered 18th-century literary figures dealing with proliferating reading material, diversifying formats, and accelerating production schedules, nor that those figures engaged in recognizable strategies of browsing, sampling, rearranging, and selective inattention—though she shows plenty of that, too. Rather, it is that she presents a set of exemplary readers and writers whose reflective encounters with books highlight the utility of the codex as a technique for thinking about time in its many meanings. The result is a vigorous and partially novel defense of the value of books and the humanities to a happy and meaningful life.

Lupton’s literary case studies juxtapose renowned authors (Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, William Godwin) with figures known mostly to students of the period (Catherine Talbot, Elizabeth Carter, William Temple), and others, like Sussex shopkeeper Thomas Turner, who never wrote for publication. Their novels, tracts, letters, and diaries all present or illuminate the act of reading books as “something that happens through time,” but in a few quite different senses. Some show how books spurred readers to compartmentalize or dedicate time, exemplified by patterns of reading differently on Sunday, in the morning, or during winter. Some show how books attracted less patterned, more desultory practices of selective revisiting. In others, books make visible changes in readers over the course of their lifetimes, accentuate the temporal contingency of those changes, or stand for a perpetually postponed future.

Whether these approaches to books are aligned, competing, or loosely affiliated variations on the single theme of time seems open to debate. But Lupton links them all because they fly in the face of received wisdom about books (and about novels in particular) and of ideologically dominant attitudes toward time use. Printed books, both their critics and their beleaguered defenders tend to agree, promote linear and sequential thinking by stabilizing, sequestering, and ordering their contents between their covers. Somewhat analogously, it is typical to describe modern time as linear, uniform, and homogeneous. Lupton encourages us to see both books and temporal experience differently.

Printed books may be fixed, paginated, and fully present, she argues, but that only highlights the strategies that readers use to unsettle them temporally. The bound book, in fact, seems to have invited those strategies. Eighteenth-century British readers liked having stable and durable books on hand, in part, so that they might access the text out of order, repeatedly, on distinct occasions, at different speeds, and with an eye toward an undetermined future.

Lupton herself seems to find in books the same appeal. For her as for her historical exemplars, “reading makes events that have been ordered one way into things that can still be accessed and reordered in time, and that therefore come with a surfeit of possibility that real life lacks.” Their very “doneness,” as Lupton puts it, prompts her to find discontinuity, rupture, change of direction, and perpetual deferral, to slow time down and even to stop it altogether. This becomes clear in the numerous autobiographical vignettes that punctuate and enliven her account, stories from a life spent reading, revisiting, accumulating, and postponing books.

Lupton invites us to follow her in seeing books as things that introduce difference, discontinuity, and even plasticity into time itself.

Reading postponed is an especially powerful motif in the autobiographical strand of Lupton’s account, not simply because she projects onto the books in her possession a personal future of leisurely reading but also because she locates in books a broader utopian vision of release from time discipline. In one telling anecdote, Lupton describes the minutes leading up to a class, as she skims back and forth through a text she is poised to teach. Up against the clock, she acknowledges, “I … spool through familiar books in these moments as a way of controlling time rather than succumbing to it.”

Like the readers she studies, the English professor finds in the act of spooling (and perhaps in the physical feel of the codex) not a manual of order or progress but, rather, a tool for a kind of time management that is strikingly different from what we ordinarily mean by that term. Rather than seeing time as a scarce, homogeneous resource to be economized or optimized, Lupton invites us to follow her in seeing books as things that introduce difference, discontinuity, and even plasticity into time itself.

The utopian politics of this intervention rise to the surface. Much as books became, for Godwin and several others in this study, “conduits for a vision of a more leisurely time to come, one in which they would be accessed democratically and with pleasure,” books are pleasurable and alluring to Lupton in part because they promise the end of alienated labor, a promise that Lupton sees as central to the increasingly thwarted democratic potential of the university system to which she has hitched her own working life.

Why this allure and this promise have attached themselves to the bound codex, however, remains uncertain by the end of this account. As Lupton concedes, there is no reason why other kinds of machines for storing or transmitting text (or voice or image) couldn’t, in theory, partition time, invite revisitation, foreground contingency, or promote “the fantasy of leisure to come.” But she remains convinced that, right now, no other platform or medium quite accomplishes this.

Strikingly, she does not suggest that the special powers of the books she values derive from their content—from their fictionality, their aesthetic merit, their narrative structure (though this issue is obviously connected to time), or the cultural capital invested or embedded in them. Lupton defines the literary, which is the category to which she remains professionally tethered, as a mode of thought characterized by refusing linear or instrumental time use. Slow, uneven, anticipatory, and disorderly engagement is by definition literary, even if the object of that engagement is not fiction or even, she argues, not a text. But somehow the particular objecthood of books (the vast majority of which, both in our day and in the 18th century, are not fiction) cements their status as literature.

Reading and the Making of Time says relatively little about two qualities of bound books that stand out in our age of screen reading: their heft and their suitability for display. The bulkiness and weight of books, from which Kindles and Nooks promise liberation, remain, for many readers (including this one, for whom the task of reviewing a manuscript available only in PDF format proved harder rather than easier), central to their talismanic potential, as do so many other tactile variables related to page texture or the flexibility of covers and binding.

Students entering my office sometimes inquire whether I’ve read all the thousands of books that line its walls. In the wake of Christina Lupton, I might expect them to ask whether I aspired to read all these books. But whether books represent our past experiences or our dreams for the future, the way we showcase and arrange them seems interesting in an age in which databases and search engines have eclipsed books as tools for looking things up. Displayed books gesture forward and backward to acts of reading and rereading; of purchasing, posing, moving, and unpacking; of passing time and dropping into its folds.

This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

Featured image: Stadsbiblioteket, Stockholm, Sweden (2018). Photograph by Susan Yin / Unsplash