The Marginalian
The Marginalian

9 Books About the Many Meanings of Time: A TED Bookstore Collaboration

9 Books About the Many Meanings of Time: A TED Bookstore Collaboration

“I don’t like time to flap round me,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary. And yet time is always and forever flapping round us, impervious to our protestations. We might as well befriend it, then.

For this year’s installment of my annual collaboration with the TED Bookstore, I selected nine books that explore the many dimensions of time — the flow of a single life, punctuated by the triumphs and tragedies that compose the universal human experience; the contrasting time-scales of the universe, in which billions of years conspire in the slow evolution of life and cataclysmic events can alter its course in an instant; the unending dialogue between the past and the present, reminding us that nothing we experience as new is truly new; the diurnal record of seemingly mundane moments out of which the meaning of life arises.


Here are the selections, along with the short descriptions I wrote, as they appear in the bookstore.


On the Move: A Life (public library) by Oliver Sacks:

Oliver Sacks is a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form. His autobiography, in addition to offering a revelatory lens on his singular spirit, is a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (we see him go from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (there he is, a young gay man looking for true love in the 1960s, which was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (on the beaches of City Island, he watches horseshoe crabs mate exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primeval seas). On every page, this supreme poet of science reminds us what it means to live a full, purposeful life.

Read more here.


Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) by poet Matthew Burgess and artist Kris Di Giacomo:

Beloved poet E.E. Cummings remains one of the most innovative creative voices of the twentieth century. This lyrical illustrated biography chronicles his life and creative bravery with uncommon tenderness, befitting Cummings’s onetime proclamation that he is “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

Read more here.


M Train (public library) by Patti Smith:

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” writes Patti Smith in this most unusual and breathtaking book — part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself, in which she looks back on a lifetime of loves and losses through the lens of the beloved literature that shaped her mind and music: from William Blake to Sylvia Plath to Haruki Murakami. What emerges is an uncommonly beautiful meditation on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the pain of loss.

Read more here.


The Life of the Mind (public library) by Hannah Arendt:

In 1973, Hannah Arendt became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality. Other speakers have included such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan. A significant portion of this altogether mind-expanding book adaptation of her lecture explores the perplexity of memory and how our thinking ego shapes our experience of the elasticity of time.

Read more here.


Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) by Anne Truitt:

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the discomfort of being forced into a finite and therefore limiting definition of what one is and what one’s art stands for. To untangle her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. Formally trained as a psychologist, she possessed exceptional powers of introspection and self-awareness which, coupled with her artist’s penchant for patient observation, which made her journal a true masterwork of psychological insight into the creative process and the life of the spirit.

Read more here.


The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library) by Sydney Padua:

Graphic artist and animator Sydney Padua tells the story of how two eccentric Victorian geniuses — Ada Lovelace, widely considered the world’s first computer programmer, and Charles Babbage — invented the first computer, the Analytical Engine. Although it has the visual sensibility of a comic book, this is actually a masterwork of scholarship and an incredibly thoughtful poetic analog to the subject matter: The story of Analytical Engine began when Ada Lovelace translated a paper by an Italian military engineer and added 7 footnotes to it, which together measured 65 pages — two and a half times the length of the original paper; in them, she penned the first computer program. Padua’s book has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio. In the footnotes — which, of course, are the original analog hyperlinks — she draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials: Lovelace and Babbage’s letters, autobiographies, unpublished paper and lectures, and various encounters with their famous contemporaries, from Charles Dickens to Mary Somerville.

Read more here.


The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) by Jimena Canales:

On April 6, 1922, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson sat down for a public debate. Although the event was intended to be a polite academic conversation, the two intellectual titans clashed completely and vehemently on just about every count related to the subject of the debate, which was the nature of time. The repercussions of that disagreement were enormous and profound, laying the foundation of how we currently understand, study, and experience time.

Read more here.


Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) by Lisa Randall:

Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall presents a fascinating speculative theory linking the extinction of the dinosaurs to dark matter. Undergirding the theory is a stimulating exploration of the evolution of the universe, the lineage of scientific breakthroughs that led to our present understanding of space, time, and matter, and the sobering reality of life as both a function both of cosmic work billions of years in the making and of dramatic accidents that alter everything in an instant.

Read more here.


Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) by Sarah Manguso:

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” writes Sarah Manguso in her magnificent exploration of time, memory, beginnings and endings, and how we measure the rhythm of our aliveness. Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection on time exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.”

Read more here.

Published February 16, 2016




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