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The reassuring vastness of time

Peter Cade/Getty

As a child I felt time was “infinite”, says Nilanjana Roy in the FT. Afternoons of immense exploration stretched before us, and we lived beyond the quiet ticking of the clock. But after a few years in the office I adapted to the grown-up world, where one is in a constant race against time – fearful that it could be better spent or that it’s fast running out. Bookstores are now littered with self-help titles on how to make the most of our days. Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History of Time takes a less didactic approach. Rebecca Struthers takes her readers on a tour of timekeeping through the ages, from the invention of candle clocks – which capture some of the “modern sense of the hours burning away” – to the first clock towers of the 12th century.

It was during the Industrial Revolution, with “the time sheet, the timekeeper, the informers and the fines”, that the real race against it began. The “measure of one’s worth” became time, not tasks. In the 19th century, we strapped time to our wrist in a bid, “perhaps misguidedly”, to reassure ourselves that we could “control the uncontrollable”. But during Covid, when we were forced into stillness and a slower pace of life, many of us started to question the tyranny of the clock. For our ancestors, time was divided by natural events like the seasons, not by abstract numbers. Struthers asks “striking” questions about the human relationship with time and whether it could – and should – change. Her book restored my childhood sense that time is infinite; “that the centuries stretching beyond our lifetimes are reassuringly vast”.

Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History of Time by Rebecca Struthers is available to buy here.