Book Column: A novel way of thinking about time

What if books, or novels anyway, are like wristwatches? They tell time. There are Rolexes and Piagets out there among the novels, finely crafted, beautifully designed, precious works of art with precisely jeweled movements. I think of the cogs and springs as the elements of plot, character and description that all must be precisely calibrated so the whole mechanism does exactly what it is supposed to do: have things happen that propel the reader forward, but with particularity of detail so the things that happen are firmly attached to the persons, places and times of the novel. And if indeed it is a finely crafted masterpiece, it remains beautiful and useful for a long time.

I am thinking about Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year. Some of these classic “wristwatches” tell two times, the time in which they were made and the time in which they are being read, even if 100 or 200 years elapse.

There are also the sturdy little Timex novels. They tell the time, they are of their time, they will not last forever, but most of the time they are correct. They fill our bookshelves, our best-seller lists, our imaginations for a while and then they stop telling us the correct time. Or they go out of fashion.

Meanwhile, times change. Instead of the springs, gears and cogs that are sort of an 18th- or 19th-century Industrial Revolution metaphor embedded in the analog clock, we have the digital wristwatch. It tells the time, but there is a different science at work: luminous excited ions, glowing numbers that announce themselves as only themselves, not visually connected to their past or future. Twentieth- and 21st-century science as a metaphor for a newer kind of novel: Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, Haruki Murakami …

And beyond that, we have a demographic shift, from people who almost always wore wristwatches to generations who don’t wear watches because they can always check their cellphones for the time. Does that mean they are not reading novels? Or if they are, they are reading them in digital format?

And what about time, storytelling and self-awareness before there were wristwatches and novels? I’m thinking of Werner Herzog’s documentary film called “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” From 35,000 to 30,000 B.C. in the south of France, Paleolithic humans coexisted with Neanderthals, mammoths and cave bears. Over the course of 5,000 years they regularly visited a limestone cave complex although they didn’t live in it. What they did in it was make extraordinary art.

Using line, pigment and the contours of the natural rock, they made images of animals that seem to leap and flicker on the walls, telling stories about water holes, mating and fighting. Some of the images were done once and then altered or added to 3,000 years later.

When our ancestors visited the caves, what were they experiencing? Were the painted walls a backdrop for performances involving music and dance, storytelling, religion or magic, or were the pictures enough by themselves? How did they understand time? Who got to make the art and who chose? Why did they do it? We can’t answer these questions with scientific certainty, but we can think about them with the same sort of imagination that inspires us to write novels or invent timepieces, whether of the gear-and-spring or the glowing-electron variety.

Meanwhile, back in the contemporary world of regular novels and book discussions, there are some compelling novels by Lisa See that our group read a few months ago. ‘Shanghai Girls’ and the sequel, ‘Dreams of Joy,’ are about sisters who come from war-torn China to America in the 1930s, specifically, Los Angeles’ Chinatown. This is an immigration story of Asian people coming through Angel Island near San Francisco and settling in Los Angeles in the early days of the film industry, with the inevitable dislocation between generations that surfaces when the American-born daughter rejects her mother and aunt to return to Communist China.

Lisa See is the daughter of the author Carolyn See and I always find it amazing when children go into a family business like writing. It’s one thing to inherit a butcher shop, a watch factory or a brokerage house and another to collaborate with your mother on a couple of pseudonymous novels and then to strike out on your own, armed only with some learned skills and introductions to agents or publishers. Lisa See has written well-received novels set in more distant Chinese eras, ‘Peony in Love’ and ‘Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,’ and her writing is assured and graceful. The stories she tells about women whose societies undervalue them are consistently fascinating and moving. Time will tell whether they are Timexes or Rolexes or perhaps morph toward some new way of telling us the time and telling us who, at this moment, we are.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.