Animals and Us   /   Spring 2019   /    Book Reviews

Good on Paper

Books, reading, and literature cultivate “a way of being in time.”

Nan Z. Da

Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83) (detail); Musée de l’Hôtel Sandelin, Saint-Omer, France/Bridgeman Images.

Decluttering expert Marie Kondo is stern about books: Get rid of the extra ones. There’s an optimal time to read a book, and that’s when you encounter it; otherwise, it just sits on your shelf as a reminder of the closing of that window. This instruction, like the rest of her program in her 2016 book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, is a romance of undifferentiation. Just as you’re supposed to reduce the number of categories for your belongings, the time of encountering a book is to be made equal to the space of reading it. No more compartmentalization than that is needed. The first time is the best and only time. If a book really meant that much to you, Kondo suggests simply buying it again. When her own book ceases to give joy, one should also let it go.

Against this otherwise unimpeachable redirecting of consumer habits through immediate pleasure, we all need better explanations for the desire to keep books—many unread, many that will never be read, most of which will never be read again, a handful truly loved. But let’s be real about the rest. A rigorous defense of that most ordinary act of picking up a book and deferring its reading to some later time, it turns out, comes to us unsurprisingly from a book, specifically, a work of theoretical literary criticism.

In Reading and the Making of Time in the Eighteenth Century, Christina Lupton argues that books are technologies of future-orientation. They wait for us patiently as non-negotiable chunks of reading time that must be taken from somewhere, as things toward which we strive, interacted with here and there in stolen, discontinuous moments that may or may not be repeated with different results.

That might not seem like such a complex, original, or consequential argument, since many of us imagine ourselves, in the good life of the future, retired in the company of old books, biding our time until we get to read them. All of us know that you can revisit books and jump around in them. But it turns out that Lupton’s argument has to make corrections to every disciplinary paradigm it passes through: book history, media theory, narrative theory, the philosophy of time, histories of Enlightenment print culture, and critical methodologies built on the dissemination of reading materials.

First, there was always competition between reading, distraction, and labor; it is just not very clear how books and time technologies factor into this competition. Lupton studies the eighteenth century, a period that produced an explosion in reading materials yet also new ways to rob time from reading. In the normatization of temporal experience, history ceased to happen in time, but through time (Reinhart Kosselleck), and discipline shifted from corporal punishment to subjectification in time (Michel Foucault). More practically, there were new instruments for the regimentation of time, for organizing the day around clocking in and out, for reducing life to productivity and output (E.P. Thompson).

Books, reading, and literature may obviously intervene in capitalist, managerial time or normative temporalities, but they do so by cultivating “a way of being in time,” not just by granting time. Requests for more time and space for reading are invariably met with skepticism—the higher-ups might say you’re not actually harried all the time—there are lots of boring stretches in a busy person’s life, and time given to reading may as easily be wasted on social media. We need to reassess fantasies of undifferentiated time. The eighteenth-century readers Lupton brings to life in various ways imagined ideal reading not in utopian futures abounding in idle time but as taking place in discrete chunks of time only barely walled off from the demands of life.

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