January 31, 2008


The Secret Pulse of Time: Making Sense of Life’s Scarcest Commodity. By Stefan Klein. Marlowe & Company/Da Capo. $25.

Sleep Deprived No More. By Jodi A. Mindell, Ph.D. Marlowe & Company/Da Capo. $14.95.

      Americans are quite familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s famous comment, “Time is money.” They are less familiar with composer Hector Berlioz’ wry remark, “Time is a great teacher; unfortunately, it kills all its pupils.” Even less known is a straightforward but pithy Hindu statement, “Time is holy.” So what is time? Clearly, it depends on who and where you are and what you are doing; it also depends, as science journalist Stefan Klein points out in The Secret Pulse of Time, on when you are: “As the pace of our lives speeds up, our perception follows suit.” Klein’s very wide-ranging look at experiential time delves into what it means to perceive the passage of time, what happens in the brain that connects us to event sequences, and what unexpected correlations there are between time perception and everyday activities. For example, he writes that people concentrate better by drinking coffee because “coffee heightens the effect of noradrenaline in the brain, which results in the release of more dopamine. … People who suffer from attention deficit disorder…are among the most habitual coffee drinkers, because this disorder is caused by a weak executive function, and caffeine can compensate temporarily for this deficiency.” Klein writes with surety and finesse, and is fond of using unexpected juxtapositions to intrigue readers, as when he calls one section of a chapter “Thelma, Louise, and the Rocket.” He points out the realities of time management (“no day has more than 86,400 seconds, and we cannot focus on two things at once during any one of them”) while also exploring the oddities of time perception and management (“moving clocks run more slowly”). This is a discursive book, easily able to accommodate a Marcel Duchamp painting, a scene from the 1948 Alfred Hitchcock film Rope, and an explanation of transcendence: “Paradoxically, we find ourselves able to experience the smallest possible unit of time this intensely because we feel that we are being carried beyond the limits of time and space.” Klein manages to explain how time can be money, a teacher and holy all at once, through a combination of its objective existence (however perceived) and our subjective experience of it.

The Secret Pulse of Time is an intellectually bracing book, but only occasionally a practical one. Sleep Deprived No More is far less elegantly written and far more matter-of-fact in what it seeks to accomplish – and will, at least in sections, be far more welcomed by women who are pregnant or have infants. The book’s intent is spelled out in its subtitle: “From Pregnancy to Early Motherhood – Helping You & Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.” Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, and author of several books on sleep difficulties in families, here spends almost 300 pages on a single aspect of sleep in a book intended for people who are quite unlikely to have sufficient time and energy to read it. The sleep tips and bullet-point reminders at the ends of chapters are useful and easy to absorb, but the chapters themselves tend to get more detailed than many women will find useful – so the book gets a (+++) rating. For example, a four-page Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script lists 12 muscle groups and corresponding tensing exercises, then goes through every element of what a woman should do to follow the script – including exactly how many seconds to wait between script elements. In other places, Mindell is less than helpful and less than realistic: during the third trimester, “Even just the [baby’s] usual stretching of limbs and bending of elbows can keep you awake at night. What you can do: Honestly, nothing. There is no way to settle an active baby down when you are trying to sleep. Instead, enjoy it. This is the best part of pregnancy.” (It is?) Mindell has a number of good ideas, but ferreting them out may take more time (there’s that “time” element again) than a mother or mother-to-be can spare. Stick to the end-of-chapter summations and suggestions, though, and you’ll find a lot of solid information in short, easily digestible, timely form.

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