A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist
The perfect nonfiction book may be a simply unattainable product: the few with more than passably good writing and fluid arguments are often distinguished by dry subject matter and delivery, while many with blockbuster concepts are undone by a complete inability to string together a decent sentence or two thousand. The latter are all the more tragic because they leave readers with the lingering feeling that an opportunity has been sorely missed, all the more important in nonfiction because, unlike good plots, good theses and interesting ideas often have few experts and the books that espouse particularly intriguing ideas often owe their genesis to the author alone. It is difficult to read A Geography of Time as anything but a painfully missed opportunity, an exhibition not of Robert Levine’s truly interesting take on the human condition but instead on all of the crucial errors he makes in attempting to create a high-impact pop-psychology bestseller out of his own experience as a Very Serious Scientist, Thank You. The result is a muddle of memoir, data, and that particular breed of arrogance showcased best when one is attempting hardest to avoid such accusations. This wouldn’t be so infuriating if Levine was writing a run-of-the-mill clunker, but the unique importance and ubiquity of time, his chosen subject, makes this painful result all the more tragic.
Levine wastes no time in demonstrating many of the ways a well-conceived book can veer dramatically off course, opening his preface with a personal anecdote about the flow of time in Brazil. This technique, of course, is a brilliant way to draw readers into an otherwise heavily fact-oriented narrative, but it becomes immediately apparent that Levine is no storyteller. The observations fueled by his recollections go incredibly wayward as he first attempts to embrace cultural relativity and then suddenly realizes his need to play to his audience, couching his language in ironically indicting, careful non-judgmental terms that play up his ignorance not only of Brazil, but of his audience as well. Levine clumsily dances around real issues throughout his book, absolutely unwilling to take a stand while simultaneously pretending to and offering value judgments where he promises objectivity. It is difficult to say what he is arguing at any given moment, particularly as evidence often contradicts facts due to his mishandling of English. Time and again, arguments are undercut while readers can only sigh and try to construct what Levine meant to say instead. In one particularly hilarious example, Levine reprints a story of a medieval duel left uncontested after one participant failed to show by noon and the other duly declared him a coward. What the author does not seem to realize is that the resulting intensive court inquiry as to the precise time of the challenger’s own departure does not, in fact, illustrate an "indifference" to time; rather, it demonstrates what appears to be his original point, that the understanding of time could be very fluid in a world without reliable, coordinated clocks. An indifferent court would have placated the duelist and needn’t have bothered ascertaining the precise time that the duel was abandoned.
This may appear to be a minor quibble, but this gross misunderstanding of evidence is just about the only consistency of Levine’s book. Despite being ordered into reasonably logical sections, the book bounces back and forth between subjects, repeating stories and observations and wholly unable to knit anything together at all cohesively on any level. Paragraphs are just as often non-sequiturs as enlightening follow-ups to those preceding, and the inconsistent deployment of line breaks and headings renders them almost pointless. The writing itself is often condescending and remarkably ignorant for all of the traveling Levine has done, his observations hollow in their inevitably numerous iterations and his eagerness to please undermining any scientific credibility he may have had.
Simply put, this book is ultimately undone by ambition and good intentions. It is admirable that Levine himself admits some of the flaws of a given data set, but after spending pages describing why, exactly, his data may be untrustworthy readers may be forgiven for failing to give it any credit at all. The author’s decision to include data this unreliable is questionable at best and perfectly illustrates the confusion that rests at the heart of this book. Levine wants so earnestly to write a pop psychology bestseller that his intent bleeds through where any semblance of a consistent thesis or even a reasonably reliable tone cannot. The book is at once organized thematically, chronologically, geographically, and not at all. Most galling, the end result of a globe-spanning exploration of the flexibility of human time perception yields no useful results. Interesting observations, such as the power associated with making people wait for you or the differences between individualistic and community-based societies, are illustrated with the same few bland anecdotes or are basically ignored as Levine remembers something shiny he either forgot to mention when it was relevant or simply cannot wait to divulge.
For all his misdirection and stumbling, Levine has constructed something useful. His enthusiasm for and appreciation of time as an under-recognized but crucial factor of the human experience is unquestionable and should motivate future scholars to follow up on his more interesting ideas. Unfortunately, Levine simply lacks the finesse necessary to make his ideas coherent and the good judgment to edit, well, anything. There is nothing wrong with embracing cultural relativity, and his decision to do so follows naturally from his experiences, but some things are just incomparable: it is beyond appalling that Levine quite seriously equates habitual Brazilian lateness with honor killing of women caught in adultery; this is no exaggeration. With that gem, Levine erodes any credibility he may have had only halfway through the book and readers can only grimace and prepare for the barrage of ill-supported, self righteous assertions that populate the text. A Geography of Time has the basic elements of success with a unique and important subject, combination of personal experience and scientific data, and the author’s unwavering enthusiasm; unfortunately, the last becomes so overwhelming that any useful insight can only be gained through sheer persistence as a reader wades through the muddled mess.