I finished reading Faster by James Gleick last week. Gleick (whose personal site is at Around.com) is my favorite author on technical matters. If he could make me understand Chaos theory, he can do anything. (If you haven’t read Chaos, you should: excellent overview of fractals, the law of unintended consequences, etc.). His biography of Richard Feynman, Genius, was another outstanding book about one of the great minds of the 20th century (some say second only to Einstein). Few authors could have explained physics as well as they explained Feynman.
Faster is about the acceleration of our lives – how we seem to have less time, despite our ability to measure time in even smaller increments. Gleick is a master at observing the little things – and he freely admits the paradox of writing a book about things getting faster. (Aren’t books inherently slow?) For me, the value of the book was Gleick’s ability to capture the zeitgeist of the last decade – and to suggest the possible ramifications. One example is his observations about the information explosion:
Many of the world’s librarians, archivists, and Internet experts see a crisis looming. They warn that our burgeoning digital culture is heading for oblivion, and fast. “There has never been a time of such drastic and irretreivable information loss,” says Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog a generation ago. Our collective memory is already beginning to fade away, he argues. Future anthropologists will find our pottery but not our E-mail. “We’ve turned into a total amnesiac,” Brand says. “We do short-term memory, period.”
Faster is contemplative, a bit meandering (I think purposefully so) but ultimately worth the read. Even though it was written three years ago, many of his observations are just as timely today as they were when he wrote them. Just about every chapter has a nugget worth quoting, and my copy is now earmarked and underlined throughout. I will no doubt return to this book periodically.
Gleick is a great writer – and great news! By visiting his new site, I see that he has a new book, titled What Just Happened: A Chronicle From the Electronic Frontier. I’ve now added to my growing reading list (which is expanding rapidly thanks to Ernie and Jenny.)