Wednesday, February 20, 2008

FASTER by James Gleick

The Book: James Gleick, FASTER: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. Pantheon advance reader's edition, 1999; good condition, some warping and minor water damage to front cover and edge of front endpaper.
First read: 2000
Owned since: 2000

Following yesterday's rant, this is a book that looks at the history of time-keeping, time management and time saving -- and concludes that human beings speed things up simply because we can. We must like multi-tasking, because we use the time we "save" not to concentrate or to slow things down, but just to do more.

Gleick makes an important distinction between speed and efficiency, though, which is critical in our daily lives. What does it matter that we can get from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles, California in half a day? We take that speed for granted. What we notice is the two-hour flight delay at JFK. We notice the extra half hour on the tarmac. Gleick describes studies that record elevator riders complaining about "ten minute" waits for elevators, when on clock time these delays were never more than two minutes. The expectation of speed leads to the reality of waiting, and while we wait we have to find things to do with that time.

It's human nature, and no one's going to change it, but the implications for our society deserve more discussion than Gleick has -- er -- time for here. Any major effort takes time, and we are training a generation of young people who aren't used to things that take time. We complain about movies that are more than two hours long; we study in 50-minute chunks of class time; we legislate breaks in the work day.

I'm as bad an offender as anyone else. I take breaks by playing online three-minute Scrabble games, and if I could play two-minute games, I would.

And that's all fine, except that we seem to be losing our stamina for bigger projects, for things that might take more than a day or a week or a year or even a lifetime.

The Cathedral at Chartres took 115 years to build, and was never finished as originally intended. The National Cathedral in Washington took 100 years.

I have several author friends on contracts that require them to write a book a year, and know at least one author who writes two or three. Some struggle with this, some don't, but I wonder which among them are sacrificing the chance to work on a project that might take longer than a year to finish. If any of you are reading this and want to comment, I'd like to hear whether you feel that you have enough time to do your work as you'd really like to.

Five Random Songs

"A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," Bryan Ferry. A cover that turns the original (by Bob Dylan) into something almost opposite -- not a lament but a taunt, with Ferry's distinctive electronic jangle.

"Trudy and Dave," John Hiatt. An outlaw song about new parents who "took the money for the laundry and drove away clean." John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett performed in Portsmouth, NH, last night, but I couldn't go because I had rehearsal.

"Breakdown," Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Wondering if he cares about you? If you're wondering, he doesn't -- but he might care that you care about him. It's not the same thing.

"Tessie," Dropkick Murphys. I'm not sure that they actually handed me a copy of this song when I immigrated to Red Sox Nation, but they might have.

"Hold Out," Jackson Browne. Heavy on the 1980s this morning. My original copy of this record was on vinyl.


norby said...

That sounds like an interesting book. Since I've been living with my parents, and going more places with them, I've really been noticing how impatient they are. My father gets upset if the red light takes longer than he thinks it should. They're astounded by the waits at restaurants, how busy it may be, or any other factors don't occur to them.

But they take 'shortcuts', whether they actually save time or not. And their computer, so slow. But they don't notice.

It's amazing how time, something we can't control at all, can be so subjective.

Claire said...

Sorry for introducing you to Scrabulous--it's destroying my life a little, too.

Larry said...

A book could be written in response to your question.
I have two jobs and thus two prospectives; my day job, and my pursuit to publish a novel, or 12, and getting filth stinking rich in the process.

As for the former, corporate America has move from the The Pursuit of Excellence to struggling to compete in a global market where employees earn a fraction of what Americans receive. The clear answer in this case is a resounding NO, and everyone feels the frustration of constantly making mistakes, misreading e-mails, or simply loosing the needle in the ever growing hay stack.

As for my writing... ah, gee... It's a matter of self discipline. The day job has been taxing of late, so my writing has suffered. I tend to go in cycles over the course of a year. When I'm on, I have all the time in the world to put my best efforts on paper, but in this pursuit, I'm the one in control, not the boss, not the customer, not the factory manager who failed to read the blue prints.


Anonymous said...

And people kid me about still having dial-up at home. It helps me appreciate when things are faster, not expect them.


Larry said...

To add to my other comments, the computer which was to have made us more efficient AND provide us with more leasure time has in fact forced the individual to perform more functions than ever. Coupled with being connected all the time, there is no escape. I'm always amazed when the boss send me an e-mail at 2:15AM. What the hell is he doing?