Published by Hyperion on September 4, 2012
The measurement of time, Mitch Albom’s parable tells us, distinguishes man from other animals. Man alone measures time, and man alone fears time running out. Every parable has a moral, and Albom’s is this: we should replace fear of losing time with an appreciation of the time we have. It is a worthy lesson, even if the parable flounders as it makes its way there.
The Time Keeper imagines Father Time as a real person, a man immune to the ravages of time. In biblical times, Father Time’s name was Dor. While his childhood friend Nim was building the Tower of Babel, Dor was learning how to measure time. When Dor’s wife becomes ill, Dor tries to climb the tower in the hope that by reaching the heavens, he can make time stop. When the tower falls, Dor is banished to a cave and cursed with immortality because he offended God. By teaching man to count time, “the wonder of the world he has been given is lost.”
Alternating with Dor’s story are those of two other characters. Victor Delamonte, the fourteenth-richest man in the world, has a tumor on his liver. At the age of 86, he is running out of time. He resolves to buy more time. Sarah Lemon is a smart but unattractive seventeen-year-old who falls in love with an insensitive hunk named Ethan. When he rejects her, she doesn’t know if she wants to keep living -- she wants less time than she has been allotted. Dor’s penance -- his chance to atone for the sin of inventing clocks -- requires him to intervene in the lives of Victor and Sarah.
The Time Keeper is easily read in one or two sittings (depending upon how long you sit). Albom uses simple sentences to tell a simple story. As is generally true of parables, simplicity is The Time Keeper’s defining characteristic. The proposition it initially advances -- that counting moments leads to misery, that we should lead simple and grateful lives -- isn’t particularly profound, but the nature of a parable is to illustrate an obvious lesson.
But is it an honest lesson? Dor was punished (or readjusted) because he wasn’t content to live his life without counting its moments, but inquiry and invention are arguably a better use of a life than sitting still and being grateful. There is much to be said for the human capacity to plan and to inquire, traits that inevitably lead to an understanding of time. Albom’s point -- that we need to spend our life appreciating the time we have rather than fretting about the time we don’t have -- is a good one, but it’s also a half-truth. The downside of measuring time is balanced by countless upsides, a reality that Albom’s story chooses to ignore. The sense of urgency, the race to accomplish something before the clock runs out, has led to better medicine, longer lives, greater comfort, and a host of other worthy accomplishments that would never have been achieved if everyone were content to tend sheep and feel grateful for a quiet, uneventful life.
Albom’s expressly stated notion that life was more satisfying before the invention of time measurement is unsupportable. Time measurement actually began with prehistoric man, long before Dor, and cave dwelling isn’t my idea of a fulfilling life. There’s an undertone in Albom’s story -- simplicity is good, progress is bad -- that is reflected in Albom’s vision of a future in which people have “forgotten how to feel.” A few hundred years from now, Albom posits, people will long for “a simpler, more satisfying world.” Albom’s peek at the future is a denial of history: life might have been simpler in biblical times, but it was also shorter and more difficult. Lives were consumed by the struggle to survive. The slaves who were building the Tower of Babel had little opportunity to feel grateful for their existence. The ensuing millennia haven’t made people any less capable of “feeling,” and it’s difficult to believe that people will lose that innate ability as time marches on. People are fond of believing that everything was better in the past, but as Woody Allen recently demonstrated, the present is a better place in which to live.
Of course, parables aren’t meant to be taken literally, and if one reads the story solely as a reminder of the need to appreciate whatever time we have, the message resonates. There are conventional novels that make the same point with greater depth and more subtlety (The Chequer Board is a favorite), but parables aren’t meant to be subtle or deep. Nor are the gaps in internal logic as important in a parable as they would be in a different kind of story. At its root, The Time Keeper tells a good story, has a sweet ending, and delivers at least half of a universal truth.
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