BY James A. Fragale

James A. Fragale

Most New Yorkers feel as if we never have enough time for all we need and want to do.  In my case, I’m aware I rarely have enough time to read.  Recently, ran across a little-known new release I wanted to share with friends and the world–a book I’m guessing not one of them will read. It’s about the ubiquitous object, near us always: a time piece, yes, a clock and/or watch.  How can timepieces make riveting reading, you might ask?  Through the stories of twelve clocks, author David Rooney writes an “insightful…  globe-spanning book…”.

(And, by clock here, we refer to anything that tracks the passage of time: sundials, hourglasses, kitchen timers, and the watch on one’s wrist and maybe in your “watch pocket,” remember those?)

Folks began been complaining about clocks since the first public sundial turned up in Rome, a trophy of war expropriated from Sicily in the third century (BCE) and then mounted in the forum for all to see. How was it received? The Romans cursed it. A comedy writer of the day, Plautus, said, “The gods damn that man who first discovered the hours, and—yes—who first set up a darn sundial here, who’s smashed the day into bits. You know when I was a boy my stomach was the only sundial, by far the best and truest…” Either way, from then on, Romans and the rest of were forced to live their lives by the clock.  

And now, most of us are all obsessed with time: “…waiting, worrying, racing the clock, punching the clock, clocking in, or locking out… ‘There’s no time,’ we cry, or ‘I just don’t have the time…’ The thorough author, onetime curator of gamekeeping and steward of a clockmaker, left nothing unscathed.

  1. The most famous, most photographed, (renamed Elizabeth Tower in 2012) is Big Ben. The enormous one’s bell strikes on the quarter-hour and can be heard five miles away. 
  2.  The largest in the world, in Mecca, the Makkah clock, completed in 2012, sits atop a skyscraper and hotel overlooking the Great Mosque—it’s six times larger and higher than Big Ben. Note: the book’s author attempted to visit the Makkah but, as a non-Muslim, forbidden to.
  3. The world’s largest sundial… the Samrat Yantra, in Jaipur, India has a gnomon that rises to a height of seventy-five feet, and the time is marked by its shadow–accurate to about two seconds.   
  4. NOTE: Later, the term Clockwork, became synonymous with industrial machinery.

Thanks to Albert Einstein, we know Newton was wrong about absolute time. Mr. Einstein was able to prove that different observes, in different frames, mark the time differently…that there is no one clock to rule all. (Got that?) Here on planet earth, time is treated more than ever as absolute, true, and mathematical. 

One of Einstein’s other theories:  perfect simultaneity is impossible. Yet, we enforce simultaneity worldwide, 1) with atomic clocks maintained in icy vaults at the Universe States Naval Observatory in Washington… 2) in the Bureau International des Poids et Measures (sic) near Paris; 3) On the other hand, UTC, Yes, UTC, not UCT, Universal Coordinated Time, has split from solar time; the earth’s rotation is not consistent enough to serve as a reference when our financial markets (and highspeed communications networks) depend on nanosecond precision—and now deal in microseconds. 

A history of clocks is a history of civilization, Rooney writes. Through the stories of twelve clocks, About Time brings pivotal moments from the past to life. Author, historian, and lifelong clock enthusiast David Rooney takes us from the unveiling of Al-Jazari’s castle clock in 1206, in present-day Turkey; to the Cape of Good Hope observatory at the southern tip of Africa, where nineteenth-century British government astronomers moved the gears of empire with a time ball and a gun; to the burial of a plutonium clock now sealed beneath a public park in Osaka, where it will keep time for 5,000 years. One wonders what Siri thinks about all this.

Author Rooney shows, through these artifacts, how time has been imagined, politicized, and weaponized over the centuries—and how it could bring peace. However, he writes, the technical history of horology is only the start of the story. The son of a prominent Northeast England clockmaker, he is a historian of technology and former curator of timekeeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Today, he helps run three horological institutions, including the world’s oldest clock and watch museum, and lives in London, near the Greenwich meridian.

            About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks, by David Rooney, Norton Press


The book’s first sentence, repeated on the last page, is: “The average human life span is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.”  About 4,000 weeks, on average, hence the title. I ask, are we all pressed for time? It appears so. Personally, I feel I never have enough time to read what I want to read and attempt to be selective. I was drawn to a book that got ample space in one of the dailies and the subject appealed to me. Top publisher. Respected writer. Timely topic: Time Management) *…it was so new, B & N didn’t have a copy, but said I could order it.  Reliable amazon not only had the book, offered it for less money, and delivered the next day. All that ….and I’m here to report, the book made me uncomfortable. Here’s why: on every page the adroit author reminds the reader he is a finite human being, with limited time on earth — one who doesn’t know when he is going to die.

 “We all will be dead at any minute…”, he writes. “Your time is finite,” he repeatedly reminds. “…we ought to avoid facing the prospect of dying without having fulfilled our greatest ambitions.” To make his points author Oliver Burkeman calls upon Rod Stewart, Seneca, Nietzsche, Danielle Steel and several times, Buddha.

ACCORDING TO THE BOOK AND THIS AUTHOR, WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: nothing is ever going to bring satisfaction; we embark on the futile attempt to get everything done; there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel/get on top of things; stop believing you’ll ever solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in; we’re operating under the illusion of one day we’ll make time for everything; convenience culture seduces us into imagining we might find room for everything…’it’s a lie;’  nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved work-life balance; it’s rigged game…it’s impossible to feel as though you’re doing well enough; Nietzsche said: ‘Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.  “The world is already broken. And what’s true of the state of civilization is equally true of your life:  it was always already the case that you would never experience a lot of perfect accomplishment or security…” “…life will always feel uncertain and out of your control…” 

 Who needs to know all that, I ask? 

In the author’s defense, throughout the book, sandwiched in, he quietly and often suggests one might experience the world “as it truly is…” A direct quote: “I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.” (Is that called reality, I ask? Possibly). Again: “By stepping more fully into reality as it actually is, you get to accomplish more of what matters, and feel more fulfilled about it…”.   He advises “…find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life we already have…”.  He finally wraps with this, “…ask the most fundamental question of time management: What would it mean to spend the only time you ever get in a way that truly feels as though you are making it count?”  

To bookend: “The average human life span is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” I did take this advice: “…focus on one big project at a time,”– well worth the price of the book.

            *FOUR THOUSAND WEEKS, TIME MANAGEMENT FOR MORTALS, by Oliver Burkeman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York


  • jamesfragale

    Writer, Journalist, Record Producer, Songwriter, Blogger,

    Thrive Global, Independent

    James A. Fragale is really “Jim:” writer, journalist, record producer, songwriter with five five-star novels on; four GQ Cover stories, a column there, too; not to mention five pieces (blogs) on Huffington Post.  Jim’s credits include discovering Tony Winner Melba Moore before she had an agent; long before her lead in Purlie, and then he produced her first two albums.  Moore recorded ten of the songs Jim wrote with Angelo (Twin Peaks Badalamenti. And, let’s not forget the advertising jingles and his collaboration with famous Four Seasons conductor-arranger Charlie Calello with vocals by Valerie Simpson (of Ashford-Simpson fame.)  Valerie now has a restaurant on West 72nd Street. (If you don’t know Calello’s extensive resume/work, he’s the guy who came up with those three notes for Neil Diamond on “Sweet Caroline.”  “Sweet Caroline, Dah Dah Dah…”. And, C.C. arranged and conducted for The Four Seasons.)   SIX Novels: BLOCKED?! Get Un-Blocked, Now! “Sure-Fire, Infallible, Solutions For Living”…The Answers to Life.” “Breakthroughs!” “Seventy-Six Trombones, Life after Thirty-Nine Made Easy” “F.U.!  (Follow Up)!  The Answer to Life Revisited” “The Answer to Life”   **Five Blogs on “Huffington Post” by James A. Fragale “Save the Music, Music, Music,” “Books You Hold in Your Hand” “Old! Old! We Hate Old! “Is It Art? Or, Is It Soup?” “My Huckleberry Friends and Me”   Four Gentlemen’s Quarterly Cover Stories by James A. Fragale Richard Gere Hart Bochner Christopher Reeve Ryan O’Neal (didn’t run)