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Chronos

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“Chronos: The West Confronts Time” by François Hartog, trans. S.R. Gilbert. Columbia University Press, 312 pages. The esteemed French historian’s 2020 study of the history of Western timekeeping practices and concepts, beginning in Greek antiquity, running through the Christian recreation of timekeeping and to the modern understanding of the “Anthropocene,” is now available in a lucid English translation. Magisterial yet accessible, “Chronos” can make the rare claim to encompass all of recorded time in a relatively slim 300-odd pages. — Jude Russo
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The French are glad to <s>die for love</s> write their academic books incomprehensibly.

Alright, maybe "incomprehensibly" is an exaggeration, but their school of academic writing loves challenging readers (something the Romanian school of academic writing has cheerfully copied, but that's a topic for another time). If you are reading their books, you are presumed to be not just highly educated, but also in the know about their topic of choice. They write, in short, as if you had in-depth previous knowledge of all topics at hand, except for the main thesis they wish to express.

Perhaps it's because of this that the book as a whole has a somewhat atemporal (or perhaps anachronistic feel). Everyone is oddly in dialogue, and you feel that time barely passes between Saint Augustine (late 4th century - early 5th century) and Blaise Pascal (17th century, over a millennium later). The French Revolution (late 18th c.) is mentioned almost in the same breath as Roland Barthes (d. 1980). For a book about the concept of time, this is odd. For a book about the eternal present, this is oddly fitting.

I was expecting better structure and more of an explanation of how the concept of time influenced the Western world. Instead, I got a text that seems to follow Christian mysticism a whole lot more than I'd bargained for, with an author who seemed almost to regret that the initial apocalyptic views of early Christians were modified over centuries and millennia. (There's a whole thing about the prophet Daniel having this idea that there would be four empires in the history of the world, with a fifth and final divine one crashing them all; and then who Christians thought those empires referred to, and their debates on that. Not to put too fine a point upon it, but those chapters could've been a shorter essay.)

There's also a bit of a (stretched?) explanation of how the secular world borrowed ideas and terminology from the Church, which makes sense, until it somehow doesn't (I can sort of see people during the Renaissance thinking of the ancients as living during "better" times, in keeping with the Biblical ideas that the world was better in the past; I'm not so sure about the arrest of time in a very mystical, Church-ish fashion during the French Revolution).

I found it interesting to see the way Christians calculated and recalculated time over the ages, as well as how they changed calendars. The main point of the book, dividing time into "chronos" (our usual, "objective" time), "kairos" (a somewhat spiritual time, if I understand correctly, where the end of the world is constantly approaching) and "krisis" (a time of change, if I got it right), is interesting. But the amount of effort needed to understand what the author is saying is a clear minus for me; it's hard to tell if someone has a point or not if you spend more time figuring out their argument than weighing it in your own mind.
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Chronos is an academic exploration of the conception of time in Western culture. How did the Greek civilization understand the concept of time? How was it portrayed in their mythology and customs? What changes did it have with the arrival of early Christianity, or later Catholicism? How does the modern idea of ​​'time' affect us, both socially and psychologically?

François Hartog, with the expertise of the great historian that he is, embarks us on a fascinating journey to answer each of these questions.

This is not an easy journey. Sometimes if you blink you can get lost in its dense chapters. However, is it worth it? If that's exactly what you're looking for, like me, then it's worth it.

That's where you might stop to think. Maybe this book is not for you, or maybe it requires a bit of effort to be fully enjoyed. However, if you are willing to dedicate your time and attention to it, this is a unique book that you cannot miss.
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I'm going to be completely honest, I had no real grasp of what Hartog was saying half of the time. I don't know if it's a translation issue, unfamiliarity with the terminology used, or if I simply didn't have the necessary historical, theological, and philosophical knowledge needed to comprehend but I frequently found myself at a loss to what was being said.

At times, the writing became almost poetic and at odds moments within the text. It almost felt like someone telling a story who suddenly breaks out in song and the returns to story as though nothing had occurred. 

I definitely feel that this book is intended for readers with a keen interest in the topic and not for the casual non-fiction reader like myself.

Thank you to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for giving me a free digital copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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This is definitely a case of "it's not you, it's me". 

This book was not written with me in mind. I do not have the literary, philosophical, theological, or even historical background to fully understand all that Hartog is discussing here - I didn't even recognise maybe half the names of people he referenced. There were large sections of this book I just didn't fully follow: some of the philosophical musings, and some of the conclusions he draws as well, went right over my head. Some of that is on me, and I'm not ashamed of it. Some of it, though, is on the writing, and I'm not sure whether that's a factor of being translated or a factor of academic French expectations or something else - or let's be honest, probably a combination of everything. 

Did I learn something? Absolutely. It was utterly intriguing to explore the different conceptions of time from an ancient Greek point of view and how Christianity made/makes use of that, in terms of what it means in the now/not yet of the Incarnation/expectation of Second Coming. The challenges to the Christian conception of time and history were interesting enough, but then I was particularly taken with the discussion of time today, and the consequences of both the atomic bombs and Auschwitz (the idea that time has stopped in some sense, as there is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity). And the discussion of urgency and the acceleration of modern life and how progress is the only way to show success... 

I enjoyed it, mostly... or perhaps, I was challenged - usually pleasurably - and that's something I don't mind. But you definitely need to be prepared to have your brain working the whole time.
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Chronos: The West Confronts Time by François Hartog and translated by S R Gilbert gives the reader so much to consider about time that it almost demands a second (and likely more) reading.

I say that not because it is confusing, it isn't, but rather that it offers so much to consider about the history of time and things I haven't generally considered from a time-centered perspective. With so much information that could alter some of my perceptions, I found myself going off on my own mental tangents. While that is a definite positive of the book, who doesn't enjoy a book that generates additional ideas, it also meant I sometimes lost the thread of what Hartog was saying. So I intend to digest this information and then reread the book in a few months.

As a history of time I think the book serves to place so much of our history along side how time is perceived and used. From that history comes the confrontation with our contemporary world and how our understanding of time plays into the many crises we face. It is this latter aspect that has me rethinking how I view time and also recasting some issues and ideas in a time-centric understanding. Am I thinking about time as Hartog does? I'm frankly not sure, but I do know that working to understand his ideas has helped me to gain a better understanding and appreciation of where we stand now.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in history in general as well as those who want to better understand where we have been, where we might be going, and how to place it all into some context.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
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