Neal Stephenson’s latest, Quicksilver, makes great recreational reading for geeks. If nothing else, you get an exciting lesson in the history of technology. Frankly, i can’t imagine how he puts all this detail together.
My friend Eric Henning caricatures his father’s impatience like this:
He’s the kind of guy who stands next to the microwave while it’s cooking his dinner, tapping his foot and saying “Come on, come on, do you think I have all minute??”
More and more, i find myself in this caricature. It’s been many years since i first read Charles Hummel’s classic 32-page booklet Tyranny of the Urgent (ironically itself an abridgement of a larger work). Hummel’s booklet was first published in 1967, and it was an early voice warning that, just as the good is the enemy of the best, the urgent is the enemy of the important.
Measured by Internet Time, 1967 was ages ago, and the pace has only become more frantic since. 074531774X, by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, shows how it is no longer merely the urgent, but the imminence of next moment, that now threatens us. Eriksen, a professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo, brings in a wide range of examples to illustrate the acceleration of modern culture and its impact on how we live.
The book grew out of a sabbatical where, despite a constant busyness of answering emails, reading articles, and review proofs, not much research got done: “there were always so many other little tasks that had to be undertaken first that i never got going with the slow, tortuous work that is academic research.” Sound familiar?
The chapter on speed documents our “history of acceleration” with these headings:
- speed is an addictive drug: “Unless we understand how speed functions, what it adds and what it removes, we are deprived of the opportunity to retain slowness where it is necessary”
- speed leads to simplification
- speed creates assembly line effects
- speed leads to a loss of precision
- speed demands space: “the great scarce resource for all purveyors of information – from advertisers to authors – is the attention of others.”
- speed is contagious: “If one gets used to speed in some areas, the desire for speed will tend to spread to new domains.”
There’s a lot of thought-provoking material here for those who are trying to swim against the cultural stream of ever-accelerating life. Unless we learn to focus on what’s truly important (which is rarely in the present tyrannical moment), we’re unlikely to live like the One who said He finished the work the Father gave Him to do (John 17:4).
Given the stability of the reading lists over the last few time periods, though, i wondered how many people were really being scanned. I couldn’t find any of my books there.
I’m adding a new category to my blog for what i’m reading. I don’t often add categories, because i don’t want to splinter information, and Radio Userland doesn’t yet offer a great mechanism for managing a full ontology’s worth of topics (though Dave is interested in that these days, and Tucows has a new service which might support something like this).
But this is a deliberate attempt to help me focus more attention on information of lasting, rather than transient, value. Of course, i read lots of things every day: my threshold here will be things that are too much to be read in one sitting. So other blogs, magazine and newspaper articles, technical papers, and the like are off limits. That mostly means books, though it’s not the number of pages but the time commitment required that’s the real determiner.
I had thought seriously about only posting here about a book once i finish it: one of my character flaws is that i’m much better at initiation than completion (that’s a strength too, of course). But i want to be able to build my responses to books incrementally, rather than hoard them all up for an end (that may, after all, never come, either because i get distracted and don’t finish the book, or because some other initiation will have stolen my attention by then). I’ll try to also post what’s currently being read (as opposed to what’s on my bedside table, usually a much larger list).
I can’t possibly go back to things i’ve read even earlier this year, or i’ll get hopelessly bogged down. I’m just going to focus on moving forward. Maybe i’ll include what’s on the top of my reading stack, if i find a good way to manage it.
Maybe this category will only matter to me, providing a memory and mechanism to see how i’m growing in knowledge: that’s still good enough for me.