Reading notes: Hands of Time

The cover of my copy of Rebecca Struthers’ Hands of Time: A Watchmaker’s History. The book, a hardcover edition, rests on a wooden surface.

I just finished Hands of Time by Rebecca Struthers and really, really enjoyed it.

A watchmaker and historian, Struthers runs a shop in Birmingham, England with her husband, Craig(Note: Who also illustrated the book.). They repair and restore old watches using traditional techniques and tools, and (as of recently) create their own line of handmade watches.

Hands of Time is both a history of the mechanical clock and a memoir of Struthers’ journey in her craft. The delicate, all-but-invisible way that she interweaves her own story, technical explanation, cultural history, and bigger-picture contemplations of the way that time affects our understanding of ourselves and the universe is just wonderful.

There’s an ‘engineered’ quality to the book. A sense that it has been carefully pieced together with only the kind of terrific patience and persistence that, say, someone who spends days adjusting hair-width springs with tiny tweezers would have cultivated. ‘Working as we do on objects only a few centimeters in diameter, a watchmaker’s world is often not much bigger than a thumbnail. It is all-consuming.‘ Indeed.

Despite the intricacy of the writing, Struthers’ voice is wonderfully warm, open, honest, and clear. She never allows explanations to get too dense or dry(Note: Although I love hearing the watchmaking jargon she uses freely. The words are musical and fascinating: ‘movement’, ‘escapement’, ‘hairspring’, ‘balance poising’.). She doesn’t seem interested in impressing anyone with her depth of knowledge or her ability to connect dots across hundreds of years of technological history.(Note: For the record, that is super impressive.)Instead it feels like I’m getting a museum-basement tour from exactly the kind of nerd I usually hope to befriend: someone who’s found something they love and wants to share it.

An inside spread of my copy of Rebecca Struthers’ Hands of Time. The books lays open on a wooden surface. An illustration of Breguet’s shock-protected balance cock, by Craig Struthers, is visible on the left-hand page.

The book is illustrated with beautiful ink-wash drawings by Craig Struthers.

There’s something that fascinates me about watches and clocks and I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why I find them so compelling. This book has helped me get some sense of that. As Struthers puts it, ‘It would not be a stretch to say that the invention of mechanical timekeepers is as significant for human culture as the printing press.’ Our ability to measure time is, in many respects, a ‘frame’ through which we see ourselves and the rest of the universe. Clocks speak to us about both the infinite and about our own mortality. They are a constant reminder that time never stops, but we only have so much of it left.

I especially liked the moments in the book where Struthers reflects on her own life experience. She mentions that she has struggled with anxiety throughout her adult life and, late in the book, she reveals that she has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Before she was diagnosed, she experienced strange symptoms that her doctors tried to write off as stress-related. As her symptoms got worse and more frequent, she began to fear that she had a brain tumor. It was an inflection point for her, where she reconsidered everything:

It wasn’t death that scared me so much as how I had spent my time. I had worked and worked — for what? What did I have to show for it? I had spent years being stressed, anxious and exhausted, but I hadn’t allowed for happiness, and now I might be out of time.

My diagnosis has permanently changed how I want to live these seconds, hours, days I’ve been given. … I focus my energy on the people in my life who support me: those who don’t aren’t worth my time. I allocate more time for taking and appreciating the world around me.

— Pages 194-5

Having struggled with anxiety and stress and workaholism myself, and also being a small business owner, her experiences and reflections resonate a lot for me.

Most of all I can relate to her love of craft — of making things; of doing meaningful, tangible work; of taking satisfaction in getting it right; of taking the time that needs to be taken. I imagine that whenever I begin to feel discouraged in my own work — mired in draft number eight of an essay that I can’t seem to resolve, or buried in my fifth rework of a drawing I can’t get right — I might find myself returning to this book as a reminder to keep things in the right perspective.