'Turn And Jump': The Importance Of Time

Guest host Linda Wertheimer speaks with writer Howard Mansfield about Daylight Saving Time and the importance we place on the rather flexible idea of time. Mansfield is the author of Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Tonight, most Americans will spring forward, setting their clocks ahead an hour for Daylight Saving Time. It means one fewer hour of sleep, but more hours of sunshine through the spring and summer. Writer Howard Mansfield says it's also a reminder that our notions of time are not as reliable as we believe.

Mansfield is the author of "Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart." He joins me from the studio of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire.

Welcome to our program.

Mr. HOWARD MANSFIELD (Author, "Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart"): Thank you. Good to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you recently wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that folklore has it that two clocks in the same room could bring sure death. Where does that come from?

Mr. MANSFIELD: It was all about how strange it was to suddenly have clocks in the house, because before that people lived by the sun, by where the sun was in the day. And to suddenly have this clock in your house - and then if you have two of them, then it really is revealed to be a fiction. You're sitting here in a gap between waiting one clock to go and chime, and the other clock to chime.

WERTHEIMER: Right. You know, everybody in a modern kitchen has that dilemma because your microwave has a clock, your oven has a clock, your coffee maker has a clock.

Mr. MANSFIELD: Yeah, there's so many clocks now we forget that there was a time in the early part of the 19th century when clocks were new and most houses didn't have a clock. And there might just be one clock in town - if that many.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I understand that you believe Daylight Saving Time particularly undermines our understanding of time. Could you explain why?

Mr. MANSFIELD: Daylight Saving Time is like sitting in a room and listening to that gap between the two clocks go. We've all agreed, we've all accepted the clock is the truth. We all just want to get on with our day. And all of sudden, we're changing it back and forward. And it's like saying the inch is going to be one length in winter, and the inch will be another length in the summer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So wait a minute. So now we're forced back to say, well, what is time? What is really time? And we don't know. And it's just as if we - OK, we all agreed that this is what 6 o'clock looks like, and then we change that. It's unsettling.

WERTHEIMER: And in your book, you talk about the problem created when time is divorced from place. Explain that.

Mr. MANSFIELD: Each place used to have its own, distinct time. In fact, just let's take the example of noon. Everybody didn't have the same noon. Noon was tied to the sun. And what you did, pretty much - since you were a mostly agricultural nation - was tied to the seasons: what crops were in, everything like that. So each place lived to its own time.

So at the beginning of the 19th century, it was time meant nature. And by the end of the 19th century, time meant clocks. Clocks started out representing nature, and then clocks became time.

WERTHEIMER: Howard Mansfield is the author of "Turn and Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart." He joined us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord.

Thank you so much.�

Mr. MANSFIELD: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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