Reading Remedy: what to read if you’re losing track of time

Mornings and afternoons becoming one and the same? Days turning to weeks? Try reading to get a grasp on a routine.

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Time may well have been a construct before lockdown, but for the majority of us staying at home to work, raise our children and socialise (via Zoom, natch), it’s become an even more slippery one. What is a weekend, aside from a couple of days without email? What is lunch, bar yet another reason to wash up? The hours, days and weeks have merged into one amorphous blob. No wonder we’ve all become more fascinated with nature – at the moment, the changing seasons offer the most concrete way to acknowledge time’s passing.

It makes one wonder how time will be perceived in what we write during lockdown and in the wake of Covid-19. For now, we’ve got plenty to chew on: literature’s been trying to make sense of time since the Ancient philosophers set it to stone. Shakespeare folded time into much of his work, giving us such everyday phrases as 'make use of time' and the 'seven ages' of man. The Victorians were fascinated by the science of time, with H. G. WellsThe Time Machine emerging as a classic of time-travelling sci-fi.

The 20th century Modernists, meanwhile, tried to make sense of the changing world between the wars by having a field day with time. Virginia Woolf set Mrs Dalloway across the span of one day in June, her characters vaguely terrified by the chiming of Big Ben, which incites “leaden circles dissolving in the air”.

Ernest Hemingway, who rose before dawn. Getty / Clifford Coffin / Contributor

How, though, can any of this help us differentiate between morning and afternoon? What can we read that will actively put some structure into our day, rather than just lolloping about from one meal to another, idly scrolling through emails whatever the hour?

Of course, there have been plenty of workplace gurus sharing their thoughts over the years. While physicists such as Stephen Hawking can shed light on how time works, making it work for you is rather less scientific.

Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique has become quite the phenomenon among the digital native, San Francisco start-up set in recent years. Cirillo’s device can be boiled down: 25 minutes of intense, undistracted work, 5 of relaxation/scrolling through Twitter. Rinse and repeat. But Cirillo’s 2018 book on the matter fleshes out the concept to inspire a better work/life balance. Also published that year was Oliver Burke’s transformative Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, which does what it says on the tin. Sometimes the changes we need to make our days a little more efficient can be more straightforward than we think.

You may be finding yourself itching for a more artisanal makeover of your lockdown days. Tired of mainlining crisps in front of unstoppable Netflix re-runs, you may ache to be the kind of person who rises with the dawn, writes for five hours and then runs 10 kilometres, which is the daily routine of Haruki Murakami. Depending on your inclination and habits, this may either seem like madness or the sign of a man truly excelling at life. But Murakami is not alone: many great writers maintain, or maintained, unconventional routines. Evidently, it worked well for them.

Sylvia Plath just couldn't stick to a schedule

Mason Curry gathered 161 of the things in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a book published in 2013. In it, we learn that no amount of booze would prevent Ernest Hemingway from rising at 5.30am (“There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write”) and that Sylvia Plath just couldn’t stick to a schedule. It can be beleaguering to read about the understandable pleasure Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag and Henry Miller rewarded themselves in the form of seeing friends for lunch or a drink – something that is currently an impossibility. But other aspects of lockdown, namely long walks and an at-home workplace, collide quite neatly with the routines of artists.  

Even if you don’t hanker for a Pulitzer Prize, it’s difficult to rattle through such reports of pre-dawn starts and regimented writing targets (curiously, more famous authors than you think balanced their creative genius with a day job) without feeling either inspired or guilted into some kind of routine. As the poet WH Auden put it: “Decide what you want or ought to do with the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble."

And if in doubt, read. We know it can be trying during lockdown, so we’ve shared some separate advice on that here. As a starting point, some time-based fiction might offer some innovative ways to think about these solipsistic hours. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time plays with relativity against a backdrop of a changing friendship and fame. The Trick to Time, by Kit de Waal, tells the story of a woman’s life told in flashbacks. Both are engaging, thoughtful reads, which in themselves might spur other pockets of action. And failing that, while away the hours. As Shakespeare said, "pleasure and action make the hours seem short". Good reading can provide both.

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