Review: Saving Time by Jenny Odell

My Quick Take: This dense but very readable nonfiction pick gave me some interesting ideas to consider about our conception of time.

Thanks to NetGalley and Random House for a digital copy in exchange for my unbiased review.


I read Odell’s 2019 release How To Do Nothing, and was enchanted by some of the concepts she presented. I still think about it to this day, and some of her ideas, like “manifest dismantling” are ones that still inform some of my choices. I love that! I jumped at the opportunity to read her March 2023 book Saving Time. It’s quite similar, and presents a new suite of ideas.

The first chapters discuss our current Westernized notions of time. Time is seen as a quantifiable entity, something that can be broken down into “fungible units”: divisible periods of time that can be used as units of productivity. This was fascinating, and plays into the idea of capitalism, the expansion economy and the question of who is buying whose time? Odell then explored self-timing, the notion of the Protestant work ethic, personal time efficiency, and “performance productivity.” Essentially we sell our time to others, or we police ourselves in the name of self improvement and pursuing efficiency and excellence.

With that established, she discusses how the privileged among us can pay a cost to opt out of this system; however, it's a lower cost than someone who has less privilege. It is easier for those of us with means to choose to live a different way if we choose to. I appreciate how Odell is always mindful of this issue. She also encourages us to consider “mediocrity” in the fight against time as money, and to refuse the wholesale embrace of endless expansion.

I liked Chapter 5 particularly, as she brings in the notion of linear time (chronos) to the climate emergency. It jibes well with my Reading About Sustainability project! The mental attitude of "declinism"–that all is in decay in the world and there is inevitable catastrophe coming–is a function of thinking of time on a human-life scale, and neglecting the notion of geological time. For example, we see the forest in our own time, which appears quite static, but it is a living entity that needs cycles of growth, decay and fire to maintain its vibrant health. We need to consider the “forest time,” or the “mountain's time” rather than just our own. She also includes a good discussion of the notion of the “apocalypse”: we see this as unique to our own time, which leads to nihilism. But we must remember that many societies have faced their own apocalypse already, and endured it. There is hope. The chapter was sobering but encouraging, because it ends with the urge for us to continue to gain a time-perspective on these issues, and to band with others to process our grief and distress.

On a personal level, these ideas floated around in my head while I read, sometimes glomming on to my own life experiences. I’ve made a transition from working for money to early retirement, and this has indeed changed my notion of time. Time always passes, but sometimes it takes on a stretched-out and slower quality, so that I can notice things more. The pandemic days of isolation did this too: time seemed qualitatively different. My fledgling secular Buddhist practice has also encouraged a different way of relating to time: the here and now can take on an elastic quality.  

One issue that really resonated was how I have bought in to the Protestant work ethic, that life should be a certain way, and that time is money. Always upwards, pursuing the good life, chasing that notion of the expansion economy. I’m trying to get perspective on this, and wrestling with the fact that I’ve consciously and unconsciously imposed this way of thinking on my daughter. I don’t really blame myself; we come to our values through very complex personal and societal interactions and conditioning. But if I could have done things differently–perhaps opted out of the perfection narrative and embraced some mediocrity for myself and those I love–I wonder how this would have changed the course of my own and my family’s life.

In the end, I found this book to be an excellent and very informative read, if a tad less compelling than How To Do Nothing. That said, I’d highly recommend this if you are ready for a deep dive into sideways thinking and looking at some questions that might be a little tough.