Thursday, December 13, 2012

Time Enough at Last

J.P. Freire on That Nonexistent Time When Everyone Read More Books:

Julia Ingalls, writing in Salon, laments that the way we consume literature is changing, forcing us to turn to more instantly gratifying, “repackaged” literature. While she eventually praises the works that come of this new cultural shift, she writes that “[t]he reality of the 21st century is that unaccounted-for blocks of time just don’t exist like they used to, at least for anybody who’s trying to make a living.”

Was this true of the twentieth century? Or even the nineteenth? Look, let’s make a rule: Stop yearning for a time when things were supposedly better if it was only “better” for the lucky (and small!) classes or geographic regions that weren’t living on the verge of starvation. We identify with the enlightened classes in history because things are better today for more people.

Every time I read a piece about how much more awesome things were when “everyone” memorized poetry, I wonder if the author knows that “everyone” was really just a handful of the few people who could afford the time to study it. After all, schedules get crunched when you’re trying not to die of cholera or malnutrition.

By any measure you care to use, things are better today for more people than ever in history. On this particular topic of “leisure time” you don’t even have to go back to the 18th or 19th centuries to realize how much has changed. During the 1930s and 40s (when my parents were growing up), around a fifth of all Americans lived and worked on farms. Many of those that didn’t worked in industries like construction, manufacturing, mining, or transportation that involved hard labor, long hours, and little time off. Most who worked for a living had very few “unaccounted-for blocks of time” and neither did the housewife who was raising children (more on average) and cooking, cleaning, and performing all the other chores of domestic life with few of the modern conveniences that we now take for granted.

Do the “unaccounted-for blocks of time” really not exist today because we have to work so much? Or because we choose to fill our lives with other activities that we’ve come to regard as necessary, but would have been viewed as luxuries by previous generations?