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delayed response

31 january 2019

Jason Farman's Delayed Response comes from a scholarly press (Yale), and Farman teaches American Studies at the University of Maryland. But it's not really an academic book – it's certainly informed by research and fieldwork, but the style of Delayed Response is much more that of the typical general nonfiction book: interview-driven, recounting the author's travels to glean this or that piece of information; accessible, lively, and wide-ranging.

Which is both good and bad. Certainly Delayed Response is highly readable, and at times quite intriguing. At other times, though, Farman's book exemplifies the things I don't like about a lot of contemporary general nonfiction. The book lacks an overall thesis and often wanders from its subtitle promise to discuss "waiting" across the centuries. Indeed, the reader keeps waiting – perhaps quite a deliberate move on Farman's part – for the various topics in the book to cohere. And as with so much nonfiction, Delayed Response tends to devolve into travelogue (where do assistant professors get the time and money to casually nip over to Japan and Australia?), and to consist too much of conversations with interview subjects. At times Farman puts his main topic on hold and discusses Civil War troop movements or the exploration of Pluto. Much of this stuff is fun enough, but it makes for neither incisive analysis or exciting reading.

The overall ideas are clear enough: waiting is significant; we hate to wait; time is money; time is power; and waiting may be an important skill to cultivate. Farman examines these ideas in assorted, eclectic contexts. Even bringing all of those contexts together between two covers is a noteworthy bit of creativity. Farman's examples include: folks waiting to meet people at an iconic Tokyo statue; the pneumatic tubes that once carried mail beneath the streets of Manhattan; the buffering icons that may at this moment be telling you to wait for some Internet file to load; Pluto; the battle of Fredericksburg (and the mail sent and received by its combatants); the practice of "sealing" medieval and early-modern documents; and Australian message sticks.

"I intend to trace how people have given meaning to the wait times for messages back throughout human history," announces Farman at the start of the book (9), but that project will have to wait for his next book. Delayed Response is not arranged chronologically or systematically, and at times seems almost haphazard. Aside from being compelled to notice obvious changes in technology, Farman avoids theoretical periodization of his subject, which is actually a good thing. We avoid the presupposition that there must be radical breaks in human nature, or unclimbable cultural watersheds, that divide modernity from everything else.

And Delayed Response is thought-provoking. "Wealth and power often bestow immunity from the stresses of waiting," notes Farman (77), and though that seems a truism, we probably don't observe its workings enough in our daily lives. Certainly waiting can be monetized, as at airports where you are constantly being offered the chance to cut in line for a few more bucks … which seems a dubious advantage when you realize that if everyone paid the few bucks, everyone would be back to waiting just as long. But more vitally, the powerful can be defined as those who do not have to wait: for a flight, for a table, for an apartment, for a social service.

I will turn 60 in a few weeks and am starting to appreciate the virtues of waiting, even as I'm running out of time to do it in. On a vacation/cultural trip of my own last week, I found myself more and more surrendering to various sorts of wait – in airports and train stations, before movies and stage shows. As Farman notes, the smartphone has become the universal guarantee against downtime, and I certainly succumb to that lure at times; but for that matter, I used to fill every vacant moment with a book or a crossword puzzle, long before I ever had a smartphone. At sixty, I am just starting to appreciate that there may be something to quietly sitting still.

In a way I am returning to my background, which included three years of attending unprogrammed Friends meetings at my middle school. Farman describes a project by Marina Abramovic in which she induced concertgoers (in 2015) to spend a half-hour waiting for a performance without distracting devices, and in fact to wear noise-cancelling headphones while thus on hold. "We were all collectively doing this one action, which is non-action, together," said one participant (195). Quakers had that technique figured out long, long ago.

Farman, Jason. Delayed Response: The art of waiting from the ancient to the instant world. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.