L&S Author Interview: David Henkin & The Week

December 4, 2023

David Henkin, professor of history, speaks about his book, The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are.

In this interview, David Henkin recalls his experience collecting and conducting research for his book, The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are. Henkin's book explores the emergence of the "natural" ordering of weeks, revealing how our current devotion to the weekly rhythms emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. 

The ancient technology of weekly timekeeping, like unspectacular technologies, has been applied in new ways to shape our connections to other people and our modern experience.
David Henkin, Professor and Author

What inspired you to write The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms That Made Us Who We Are, and what prompted you to explore this particular topic?

I’ve been fascinated with the week since childhood. I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in New York City, where the weekly calendar loomed large as the organizing timekeeping cycle of our lives. But I always wondered what this calendar meant to the majority of the world who did not observe our family’s practices.

Later, when I began to study history, I became intrigued by unspectacular technologies that have been around for centuries or millennia but nonetheless played a formative role in modern experience — specifically in terms of unspoken assumptions about our connections to other people. These unspectacular technologies did not benefit from new inventions or technical breakthroughs, but instead were applied in new ways to new social conditions. My first two books were about how the ancient technology of writing was put to new uses in large, impersonal cities and also in a transient, expansive nation during the decades leading up to the U.S. Civil War. My latest book makes a similar argument about the ancient technology of weekly timekeeping.

I’d add that over the course of researching those books and studying/teaching what we sometimes call everyday life (in nineteenth-century America), I began to notice the frequency with which weekly cycles organized that life in new ways during the middle of the nineteenth century. As I pursued this hunch, I decided that some of the changes that interested me began a little earlier, but the hunch provided the seed for the book’s central argument.

With such diverse sources (restaurant menus, theater schedules, marriage records, etc.) what was the process of conducting that research? Were you surprised by anything? 

I pursued two different strategies. One was to look for all printed documents that might record activities that people did on specific days of the week. Newspapers were an obvious and familiar starting point, but I also turned to city directories (which listed the meeting times of voluntary organizations and the schedules of courts, for example), business advertisements, and hotel restaurant menus. Marriage records appealed to me because marriages are the most extensively and reliably documented event in nineteenth-century America that people planned. (Birth and death records are even more extensive, but they were generally less planned.) Marriages were also interesting because they reflected the coordinated plans of multiple people as well as the norms (legal, religious, and social) of a community and a culture.

The second strategy was to look for places where people recorded what they did, what they intended to do, or what they remembered having done in the recent or distant past. Here I was interested both in reconstructing an individual's weekly rhythms and habits, but also in whether they used the weekly calendar (and how accurately or confidently) to plan or narrate their lives. Diaries were the biggest source here, but I also turned to personal correspondence, oral reminiscence, memoir, and court testimony.  All of these research strategies required extensive grazing over many years of my life and benefited from having numerous research assistants conduct word searches in sources I identified (often inaccurately) as promising.

I was surprised pretty early on in the research process that patterns of food consumption (Taco Tuesdays and that sort of thing) didn’t play a larger role in distinguishing people’s experiences and memories of the various weekdays. I was also surprised that Sunday was neither the most nor the least common day on which to get married in most of the counties I studied. I was most happily and productively surprised to see just how often the distinctive weekdays served as mnemonic aids for the most ordinary activities and experiences.

Other surprises are harder to remember right now.

I was most happily and productively surprised to see just how often the distinctive weekdays served as mnemonic aids for the most ordinary activities and experiences.
David Henkin, Professor and Author

If it were up to you, how would you make the week better than the one we’ve become naturally accustomed to? 

Well, I wish we consecrated more days of the weekly cycle to things other than work, but that wouldn’t entail a change in the week itself.

Do you think that at one point or another the rhythm of the week will naturally (or unnaturally) modify itself, or has it reached its final form? 

The seven-day cycle itself (as opposed to any of its particular uses, which have changed radically over time and varied widely across cultures) has proven remarkably easy to implant and remarkably difficult to extirpate. I do expect that the kind of social coordination that the week has facilitated and enforced in the 19th and 20th centuries in the West will attenuate, as it already has in our world of 24/7 labor and commerce, but I have no particular grounds for predicting the demise (or even the alteration) of the calendar unit itself.

Would you say your experiences at Yale and UC Berkeley influenced your decision to analyze the history of our modern week?

My studies in college were formative in encouraging me not to feel obligated to choose between studying social history (the history of ordinary people and their ordinary experiences) and studying complex ideas. I believe that lesson was necessary to put a cultural history of timekeeping on the scholarly agenda. My graduate training at Berkeley emboldened me to choose topics that were peripheral (at least on the face of it) to canonical questions in the field of U.S. history (race, slavery, capitalism, nation-building, the state). The week would certainly qualify as one of those topics.

The seven-day cycle itself has proven remarkably easy to implant and remarkably difficult to extirpate.
David Henkin, Professor and Author

If you were to identify yourself as a day of the week, which would it be and why? 

I'm not sure I identify exactly with a day of the week, but I am drawn emotionally to Wednesdays, perhaps because I enjoy that word, but also because we had early dismissal from school on Wednesdays when I was a teenager.

Are you currently working on any other research or projects?

I’m currently working on three different book projects. They are connected by an interest in political partisanship, sports fandom, and mass culture.

What’s currently on your bookshelf or nightstand? (What are you reading for pleasure?)

I read a ton for pleasure, especially in the summers, but really throughout the year. Some books I’ve enjoyed most this past summer include:

  • Mieko Kawakami, All the Lovers in the Night
  • Deborah Levy, The Cost of Living
  • Stacey May Fowles, Baseball Life Advice
  • Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?
  • Etgar Keret, Fly Already