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BOOK REVIEW : Bane of Modern Life: Chasing the Clock but Still Running in Place : BUSY BODIES Why Our Time-Obsessed Society Keeps Us Running in Place by Lee Burns ; W. W. Norton; $21.95, 400 pages

March 31, 1993|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you have enough time to read a book about how we no longer have enough time to read a book, "Busy Bodies" is the book for you.

"If you have better things to do with your time, immediately set aside this book and do whatever it is," writes Lee Burns, an endearing sort of social critic, at the very outset of "Busy Bodies."

"Those who accept that generous invitation make a point which undergirds everything that follows: All of us are constantly reallocating time in our search for the balance that yields the highest rewards per unit of time spent."

Burns is a professor of architecture and urban planning, but his reach is much more expansive in "Busy Bodies." He concerns himself with the effect of time on virtually every aspect of civilized human existence: art, cuisine, politics, romance, religion, sex, technology and toilet habits, to name a few.

The title of his book refers to the harried creatures we have become as a result of our perception that we are running out of time: "Busy Bodies," explains Burns, "are frantically searching for the secrets of cramming more into a fixed time-allotment--the unyielding quotidian of 24 hours." And Burns reminds us, again and again, of the price that we pay for leading such harried and hurried lives.

"Hurry sickness," as he points out, is what cardiologists first called the stressed-out personality that is now known as Type A. The Japanese even have a word for death by overwork: karoshi . But the ill effects of time scarcity are even scarier than we might suspect: Burns sees environmental, technological and moral catastrophe as the real threat of chasing the clock.

As a cure for our plight, Burns offers up "The Golden Rules of Time-Allocation," and he measures our success or failure by what he calls "Gazinta ST," a tongue-in-cheek formula that is designed to induce us to slow down and smell the roses: "The rewards or amount of satisfaction S yielded from an activity per unit of time T devoted to that activity. . . ."

Burns seeks to heighten the S value of his own treatise by tossing in anecdotal asides, historical tidbits, jokes, puns and wisecracks. We learn that Peter Paul Rubens, a master of what Burns calls "time-plus activities," used to paint and dictate letters while someone read aloud from the works of Tacitus. Burns muses over the uses of sexual paraphernalia like "love beans" and "love eggs": "The mind runs wild." And, oddly enough, he insists on giving us the gory details of self-mortification as practiced by St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Veronica Giuliani, but I cannot repeat them here just in case you're eating breakfast.

Burns presents himself as an amiable guy with a zany sense of humor. He skips Chapter 13 "as a concession to the neuroses of triskaidekaphobic readers," and he makes up an imaginary interview with Andrew Lloyd Weber to illustrate the workings of Gazinta ST on musical theater. But "Busy Bodies" is deadly serious stuff: "Readers who believe that this is a happy book just because earlier chapters were silly," he writes about three-fourths of the way through, "can ferret for their optimism elsewhere."

Indeed, Burns is a pulpit-pounder at heart, and he feels perfectly free to unburden himself of weighty opinions that do not appear to have very much to do with time scarcity. For example, he notes that church attendance is down, and he suggests that the Catholic Church is drawing poorly because it is theologically out of touch with its own laity on abortion, birth control, sex and homosexuality.

"With barely half of Catholics showing up at Sunday Mass," Burns quips, "is it any wonder that most believe that the time has come for the Pope to take his dogma for a walk?"

Almost half of "Busy Bodies" is devoted to the argument that "time-pressed behavior" has eroded the moral fiber of our civilization: "Rampant self-indulgence replaced the sense of a larger community and an obligation to help one's fellow human beings," warns the good professor. "At risk are the actions that serve the common good, such as our willingness to volunteer, to vote and to be polite."

Burns urges us to slow down and smarten up: "The question all of us must address," he concludes, "is whether the relentless pursuit of time-efficiency is really worth the consequences." The irony, of course, is that the reader who really ought to hear the sermon is the precisely the one who is least likely to sit through it.

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