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The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction [Paperback]

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

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Book Description

Aug. 29 2005 0192804995 978-0192804990
Why do we measure time in the way that we do? Why is a week seven days long? At what point did minutes and seconds come into being? Why are some calendars lunar and some solar? The organisation of time into hours, days, months and years seems immutable and universal, but is actually far more artificial than most people realise. The French Revolution resulted in a restructuring of the French calendar, and the Soviet Union experimented with five and then six-day weeks. Leofranc Holford-Strevens explores these questions using a range of fascinating examples from Ancient Rome and Julius Caesar's imposition of the Leap Year, to the 1920s' project for a fixed Easter.

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numerous b/w line illustrations and halftones

About the Author

Leofranc Holford-Strevens, a classicist, received a D.Phil from Oxford University in 1971. The author of Aulus Gellius (1988), and co-author of The Oxford Companion to the Year (OUP 1999), he is a desk-editor with Oxford University Press. He has a long-standing interest in calendars, chronologies, and the calculation of time.

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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Time is an ideological invention Jan. 7 2008
By Jacques COULARDEAU - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The first interest of the book is that it collects the essential data about how time is measured by human beings. Even if the author shows the main two methods : lunar and solar calendars, and the hybrid third solution, he shows that measuring time was never a purely temporal objective. It did not try to establish some absolutely material count of time or dating, because that was impossible, because the lunar cycle or the solar cycle are not absolutely regular, just the same as the earth's cycle. The author shows that dating was always dominated, determined by some necessities in society: the crops, the various rites and rituals, hence religion and many others, including of course political and ideological contingencies. This leads us to the obvious conclusion that time is not a natural category or concept. It is human. Time is not invented by man in its flowing always changing phenomena connected to the universal, be they cyclical like days, lunar months, solar months, seasons, years, or be they accidental like a natural catastrophe for one example. But time is nothing but a human invention in the seriating it implies that enables human beings to measure their activities and their history. History only concerns human beings, not plants nor animals. And if we can write the history of a plant or even a rock, it is because we project our own vision of time into the plant and the rock. History is also a human invention within the desire of and the need for human beings to remember, understand, plan and foresee its various activities on various scales. The best example is the week. The old (Roman and Babylonian) eight day system, then the 7 day system after the seven planets of the solar system including Venus (known by some as the morning star, the "star" behind Horus for an Egyptian example) and the moon ( the satellite of the earth). But the attempts at having other weeks are funny and yet very clear. The French Revolution and its ten day decades got rid of Sunday as one rest day out of seven to replace it by one day of rest every ten days. If you add to that the banning of religious festivities, particularly the Nativity week, the Passion week and the Assumption week, you have a real regressive social policy there. On the other hand the replacing in 1929 of the seven day week by a five day week by Stalin with one day of rest every five days (instead of one every seven days), but that day of rest was rotated among workers divided in five fifths according to their resting day is progressive on the amount of rest and regressive on the level of family life and even social life. This reform was quickly modified to a set and common day of rest for everyone but this time once every six days in 1931, to be finally restored on the basis of a seven day week in 1941. We can see in such schemes anti-religious intentions but also economic intentions to make people work more (for the French Revolution) or less (for the Soviet Union's first and even second reform). This book thus shows marvelously how man-made all the time measuring units are, be they seconds, minutes, hours, days even, weeks, months, seasons and years, even if man tried to build them on the observation of the moon and the sun, but in order to satisfy man's needs, desires, ideological intentions, economic necessities, etc. Time and history are man-made scales though history is basically the result of nothing else but the dynamics and contradictions of naturally produced structures then influenced and used by man and human groups.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dry and extremely technical June 6 2008
By D. Hood - Published on Amazon.com
What should be an interesting story -- the calendar we all live by now is actually the product of a long competition between wildly different systems (imagine 8-day weeks, 13 month-years, and anywhere from 2 to 6 seasons) where victory was more often based on theology than science -- is rendered aggressively dull and impenetrable by Holford-Strevens' focus on technical minutiae. There's plenty of interesting information here, but it's probably too simplistic for experts, and has too much jargon for the layman.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Arid as a Timeless Desert Sept. 10 2008
By An attorney and art lover - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I like this series (Very Short Introductions) very much. This one I did not enjoy. The book has plenty of detailed information, but no context, no story into which all the facts fit. That makes for a very difficult reading experience for a non-expert, the usual audience for the fine books that are typical of this series.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A short history of the calendar Aug. 13 2012
By Dr. H. A. Jones - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If readers buy this book, as I did, expecting a short discussion of the historical development of the concept of time in physics, cosmology, psychology, sociology or philosophy then they will be disappointed. There is more about `time', per se, in Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, Henri Bergson's Time and Free Will, Heidegger's Concept of Time or Carl Honore's In Praise of Slow. There is not even very much about clocks here. I would suggest a more appropriate and accurate title for this book might have been the title of my review.

The author is a scholar-editor at the publishing house so, although I know nothing of this particular aspect of time, I assume that the information herein is well researched and accurate. As such, it makes for fascinating reading and contains much information I was never aware of about the Babylonian, Hebrew, Baha'i and Chinese calendars, the dating of events from the year in which some central figure held office (used in Assyria, Athens, Sparta and Rome, the author tells us) and details of the Gregorian calendar and the dating of Easter.

If this is the sort of information you seek, I know of no better book. If you want to know something about the history of how scientists have viewed time, what psychologists have to say about how we view and use time and how this is linked historically to social changes, then you must look elsewhere.

Howard Jones is the author of The World as Spirit

A Brief History of Time
Time and free will; an essay on the immediate data of consciousness
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The History Of Time: A Very Short Introduction Feb. 25 2011
By tony clayton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Save your money. Holford-Strevens betrays his title in his introduction by writing he will not consider time, but concentrate on calendars. E. G. Richards did a better job in Mapping Time. Buy his book instead.

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