Some Timely Books

This is reading list is for my talk this weekend at SXSW Interactive,  It’s About Time: Visualizing Temporality, at 9:30 am Saturday, March 12.

About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution—Paul Davies, Simon & Schuster, 1996

You may have read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and are hungry for more.  Davies’s compassionate and intelligent prose provides someone like me with absolutely no background in physics enough meat to chew on.

Language, Thought, and Reality—Benjamin Lee Whorf, The M.I.T. Press, 1956

Benjamin Lee Whorf became one of the most influential linguists of his time, while still working as a fire inspector for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company.

“…the forms of a person’s thoughts are controlled by inexorable laws of pattern of which he is unconscious. These patterns are the unperceived intricate systematizations of his own language……”And every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.”

“What surprises most is to find that various grand generalizations of the Western world, such as time, velocity and matter, are not essential to the construction of a consistent picture of the universe. The psychic experiences that we class under these headings are, of course, not destroyed; rather, categories derived from other kinds of experiences take over the rulership of the cosmology and seem to function just as well. Hopi may be called a timeless language.  It recognizes psychological time, which is much like Bergson’s “duration,” but this “time” is quite unlike the mathematical time, T, used by our physicists. Among the peculiar properties of Hopi time are that it varies with each observer, does not permit of simultaneity, and has zero dimensions; i.e., it cannot be given a number greater than one. The Hopi do not say, “I stayed five days,” but “I left on the fifth day.” A word referring to this kind of time, like the word day, can have no plural.”

The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages —Frederick Bodmer, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1944

“One of the merits of our own language is that we leave much to the context. Whether the English conjunction when refers to an event which has happened once for all, to an event which happens repeatedly, or something which is still going on is immaterial if the setup makes the distinction clear. We do not customarily use whenever unless we wish to emphasize the repetition of a process, and we are not forced to use while unless we wish to emphasize simultaneity. This is not true of German or of Norwegian. If he is talking about something that is over and done with a German uses als where we should use when. A Norwegian uses da.” (he goes on to give more examples)

The Voices of Time: A Cooperative Survey of Man’s Views of Time as Expressed by the Sciences and by the Humanities—J.T. Fraser, Ed., George Braziller, 1966

This is the most comprehensive look at time I’ve encountered. Time in philosophy, religion, language, literature, music, psychology, psychiatry, and a panoply of the sciences. Some of the sections I particularly enjoyed were: Joseph Needham on Time and Knowledge in China and the West, Jean Piaget on Time Perception in Children, M.-L. von Franz on Time and Synchronicity in Analytic Psychology, Milic Capek on “Time in Relativity Theory: Arguments for a Philosophy of Becoming” and of course Fraser’s lovely commentaries  here and there like icing on the cake.  Fraser was a founding member of the  International Society for the Study of Time.

I will be adding to this list of books that touch on time, from time to time.

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