Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Time Machines

7th July 2014

There are many kinds of time machine.  Books are rather obvious ones.  I’m baffled by those who jettison books after reading them, or who prefer to borrow from libraries.

I’ve been guilty of stealing from libraries, and stealing from bookshops too (I was earning £25 per week when a hardback might cost £3), rather than giving back the moments I had found in some book or other, whether over months of extended borrowing (library) or a lunchtime infatuation (bookshop).  Looking back I am alarmed at my rashness, but I still have the books.

When you read a book you give it your time – not just any time, but very particular time, that special right-here-right-now time.  In return the book gives you its time, and the writer’s time. So reading a book is like being time-brothers (blood-brothers without the blood) or time-sisters with the writer, your time and his or hers joined forever, and it’s that conjoining that the book – the physical thing, the object – locks away.

The reader, in this imagining of the world, running his eye or her hand over the bookshelves, picking out this book or that one, and opening it, re-lives the time of its reading – the time, the place, the season, the bus journey or train journey or the quiet midnight moments or the bright days;  who you were with, what you were doing or not doing, when and why, that whole rush of nostalgia, all within the pages of a book.

You don’t have to will it to make it happen.  You don’t have to wish for it or even want it. It doesn’t depend on beautiful editions – nice as that can be – it’s just about the book, any book you have once read.

Let’s try a few.  The Penguin Gunter Grass editions of the middle 1970’s – Dog Years, Local Anaesthetic, Cat and Mouse –  with their dull gold covers, The Cherry Orchard by Tchehov (!) in its pink, early-Penguin covers with its end note For the Forces (1940) – Leave this book at a Post Office when you have read it so that men and women in the Services may read it too. Did anyone?  Kafka, its dust jacket torn like a careful piece of Tate art – Secker and Warburg, a first edition, 1973.  A Faber Fool for Love, Sam Shepherd, from 1983, when I was still deeply in love with playwriting.

A well-tuned time machine can even outrun death. There’s nothing past tense about the Raymond Carver of Granta 12, with its Rolling Stones cover – green shoes, red drainpipes, blue Hockney pool. Primo Levi is still miraculously alive in Granta 16. No one is dead, except in stories, in my favourite Granta of all Grantas, Dirty Realism, Granta 8 – Carver and Hoban and Angela Carter all turning their time tricks.

The world of ordinary objects becomes a recording device for all our moments, from the first moment we are aware of inhabiting it;  its objects record time – finite time, our time – as soon as we start living among them, as if a clock is set running.

But there’s a knowingness about books that makes them special kinds of objects.  Re-read the collected letters of your favourite writer to enter the deliciously multi-layered place of book time, writer’s time, your time now, your time then.

Films can play the same game. Watch Welles among the fun-house mirrors in The Lady from Shanghai.  Paintings (for me anyhow) don’t seem to in quite the same way because they are such singular objects, in the sense that they are already so completely what they are that there is no room to smuggle in much extra, they are already too completely defined. And that’s also the point. The precious object creates a singular world in its own image, somehow. In contrast, it’s the plain, everyday and ordinary object  that seems to reflect us, rather than to shine on itself.

I have my own favourites. Train tickets.  An old receipt.  A credit card statement with its list of strange transactions from a decade or more ago. An opera or theatre or cinima ticket left in a book as a book mark (I stuff them into books randomly and deliberately).  The deja vu moment when you pay for your newspaper and seem to have been here before.  The way the bus doors just closed and what you glimpsed out of them. A half-written draft of something lost in the wrong folder in your laptop. The sound of a dog barking which somehow breaks out of its own ordinaryness. The look on a face. The heady moment of that glass of wine. The trickle of the song you half hear.  These are all time machines.

Ben Morris is the author of the thriller, ‘Driving Jaimie’, currently available from your local Kindle store and from other ebook stores soon.