A middling entry in the run of recent books on calendars, meridians, and like inventions.
Canadian novelist and memoirist Blaise (I Had a Father, 1993) turns his attention to the largely unknown Sandford Fleming, a Canadian railroad entrepreneur who foresaw the need to develop a system of standard time that would accommodate increasingly rapid travel. Until Fleming’s innovations were put in place, time was a matter of almost individual interpretation; in the 1880s, for instance, Bostonians set their watches 12 minutes ahead of New Yorkers, with strange effects on railroad timetables. Fleming’s development of a universal system, which included the proposal that the day opens far out in the Pacific along a longitude that no nation could claim, eliminated such hiccups, and much of it remains in place today; as the author observes, “Of all the inventions of the Industrial Age, standard time has endured, virtually unchanged, the longest.” Arriving at that standard time, however, required endless calculation and a surprising level of international political haggling. Blaise is quite good at describing the arcana of timekeeping, and he has a deep knowledge of the cultural history of an era in which technological revolution was an almost daily commonplace. But, perhaps belying his English-professor past, he offers a narrative that is clotted with asides on what poets and novelists have had to say about the matter of time (“Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, García Márquez, and Vargas Llosa have taken Faulknerian time, Proustian time, the Catholic calendar, and even a bit of pre-Columbian aboriginal time to keep history alive for the creation of their own sophisticated myths of eternal return”)—asides that have precious little bearing on his ostensible subject and seem designed only to show off the his trove of literary allusions.
Fleming’s contributions to history are too often lost in such minutiae, and only the most dogged reader is likely to reach the story’s end.