Author studies modern man's need for speed

Sunday, November 7, 1999

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything

by James Gleick. Pantheon. 323 pages. $24.

     A compact volume that deserves to be called the non-fiction version of Alan Lightman's "Einstein's Dreams" (1993), James Gleick's "Faster" delivers a cultural history of speed. If its later chapters become more conjectural than they need to be, the book as a whole maintains a thoughtful balance between fact and speculation, offering a well-researched meditation on the pervasiveness of haste and the shrinking of time.

     We may know, for example, "that lived time is different from clock time" but few may be aware that, though time seems to be shrinking, seconds are in fact longer than they used to be. Since the earth gradually decreases its rotation by "fractions of a second" every year, timekeepers have altered the clock itself. These days, the Directorate of Time (a branch of the U.S. military) will, when necessary, add a "leap second" between December 31 and January 1. But, until 1955, they made the same adjustment by increasing the length of a second ever so slightly, closing the gap between watch and world.

     Each of Gleick's 37 chapters offers a concise (less than ten-page) report on one facet of our accelerated age. Such brevity allows us modern, multi-tasking readers to "process" a chapter in between tasks -- or even during them.

     Indeed, one of the author's most interesting observations is the notion that American culture's affinity for velocity has changed the ways in which we perceive both the world and ourselves. As director Barry Levinson told Gleick, "You cannot put a child in front of a television set where he is bombarded by images and not have an adult who is born and bred to see things differently. How can that not alter us?"

     If you can make the time to learn how our culture of instant and quick has altered us, slow down to read "Faster."

     (Phil Nel is a Visiting Instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)