If there is one impression you'll take away from this book, it may well be the remarkable tenacity of those prepared to carry out scientific research in the field of time perception. You'll read about the young French man who chose to maroon himself in total darkness in an ice cave for two months, of volunteers prepared to step blindfold to the very edge of a deadly drop down a stairwell (to find out if extreme anxiety makes time apparently pass more slowly), and the dedication of Marigold Linton, who made copious notes on her daily life for five years and tested herself every month on how accurately she recalled them (not a trivial as it might sound - by the end of the experiment she was having to choose from over two hundred possible memories, and the process of testing took an entire day).
The way that our brains percieve the passage of time is something we're all familiar with. Who hasn't wondered where the years have gone when children we remember being toddlers turn out to be doing their A levels? Or wondered why time drags in a queue, but races by when we're having fun? Cleverly, Claudia Hammond has chosen a topic thet just about everyone can relate to, but many people take completely for granted until they think about it. Hammond will tell you gripping stories of people who have either chosen, or been forced to, do precisely that. One of the most dramatic ones is that of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston who was held hostage in Gaza, confined to one room with no idea how long he'd be held in captivity and, quite literally, nothing to do. Accounts like this bring what could have been a dry and academic subject to life.
Hammond is an excellent communicator, as those familiar with her work on BBC Radio 4 will know. In fact, you might well find yourself hearing her chirpy voice in your mind as the pages race by. If I had one criticism of this book, it would be that it reads so easily that you may not give sufficient attention to the complex concepts being described. I was particularly intrigued by the chapter where she talks about how people, quite literally, picture time. Do you see it running away from you, or yourself running towards it? Why do some people imagine the months going anti-clockwise around a wheel, and does anybody have the right to tell them that's the wrong way round? Does your concept of "before" and "after" vary according to whether you write your language right to left? And, finally, can you really be sure you remember the year Princess Diana died, and did you realise that if you remember the moment you heard the news, that might well be because is happened on a Saturday night? (That means you heard on Sunday morning, a day different enough from the usual routine for the majority of people to make it more memorable than a Wednesday or Thursday).
This is the ideal read for a long train journey - informative, stimulating and yet accessible. It's also nicely produced, if a little overpriced (RRP, that is). A worthy addition to Canongate's growing non-fiction list.