The Acceleration of Just About Everything

By James Gleick

Pantheon. 324 pp. $24

I started reading this book by a pool on a drowsy August afternoon but finished it in bed, propping my eyes open against fatigue, after midnight at the end of an 11-hour September workday. Somehow James Gleick's theme of everybody's accelerated lifestyle grew on me in that time.

This is one of those books that can be condensed to a five-word thesis: Boy, we're busy these days. We know that already, so why is the author taking 300-odd pages to make the point? With a less clever writer at the keyboard, a book like this would probably wind up collecting dust on the nearest coffee table. Gleick, however, shows a knack for digging up stories that make you wonder (a) what's happened to all of us and (b) what's happened to you in particular.

Take one of Gleick's many examples of how a multi-tasking person attempts to whittle a few seconds of free time out of his daily schedule: "Then there's the subroutine he thinks of as 'the mouthwash gambit,' where he swigs a mouthful on one pass by the sink, swishes it around in his mouth as he gets his bicycle, and spits out as he heads back in the other direction." Somewhat sad, yes. But who hasn't optimized his mouthwash/toothbrush/comb routine to compact those moments between breakfast and running out the door for the subway, the bus or the car?

"Faster" starts with one of the better openings around: "You are in the Directorate of Time. Naturally you are running late." The Directorate of Time is not a made-up office in some work of dystopic fiction; it's a branch of the U.S. Naval Observatory off Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington. The Directorate is the home of the atomic clocks that determine What Time It Is for anybody who cares to know, including a growing number of Internet users who synchronize their computer clocks with the Directorate's gear online.

Gleick's discussion of the changing nature of time--our benighted ancestors had to be dragged into formal time zones by the railroads, which could not operate under the city-by-city variations in timekeeping that existed when they came into being--neatly segues into mini-essays on the myth of Type A personalities (no such separate type exists, he says, since we all match that description), how photography changes perceptions of nature, and the social dimensions of elevators.

Clever chapter titles--"The Door Close Button," "Quick--Your Opinion?," "Decomposition Takes Time," "1,440 Minutes a Day," "Jog More, Read Less"--threaten to write checks that their contents can't cash, but Gleick consistently comes through with penetrating insights and observations. Some are no-kidding surprises: "Carl Lewis, at his peak, occasionally lost 100-meter races that he had run faster than his competitors. His reaction time--the time it takes for the starting signal to translate through eardrum, brain, nerves, and muscles--was generally mediocre, on the order of 140 milliseconds, compared with 115 to 120 milliseconds for the fastest starters." Others are just dismaying, such as the research indicating that humans require, on average, at least 8 1/2 hours of sleep each night or the assertion that "the average time per day devoted to sex is four minutes and a few seconds." (Good luck!)

Gleick demonstrates an uncommon talent for describing the ordinary in extraordinary terms. When he writes that a watch is "a machine worn every day by nearly all adults in the industrialized world to display a single piece of information," we're forced to think: What is this device shackled to my wrist? What is it good for? One thinks of alien sociologists studying humans for the first time.

The best chapters succeed by manically mixing anecdotes, quotes and statistics to hammer a point home; a chapter on drug use ties together modern-day narcotics with H.G. Wells's fiction and Nicholson Baker's novel "The Fermata." You get the feeling this fellow finishes the crossword puzzle 20 minutes ahead of everybody else on the train.

The worst chapters, however, show Gleick's eruptions of intellect unraveling into simple eggheadedness--yes, wasting the reader's time--as he burbles on about eating pistachios and about blue laws that shutter stores on Sundays in Germany. But one page later, he comes up with a head-scratcher, such as his observation that the same technology that speeds up things overall introduces its own miniature Sabbaths every time you wait on hold for an operator or watch your Web browser strain to fetch data from across the Internet. (The efficient Web surfer exploits these pauses to toggle over to the e-mail program or the newsgroup reader.)

Two annoyances: Gleick shows an on-and-off weakness for flimsy, trendy-sounding assertions, such as his argument that the discontinuous narrative of "The English Patient" shows how our time-starved attention span warps artistic production. But what about the zillion and one books that have similarly distorted the space-time continuum for dramatic effect? Surely he's not going to cite "Kiss of the Spider Woman" as an example of our collective time deficit at work.

Some of his more shocking assertions ("Languages had no words for the units of speed until the era of sail made necessary the quirky coinage knot") come with no grounding in the endnotes. Those, incidentally, merit a complaint in their own right. Gleick's technique is to reprint under each chapter heading the phrases he thinks call for attribution, along with his sources for them; but the lack of a numbered reference system means the reader must scan through the text to find the phrases that are being cited and explained. Is this sloppiness or Gleick's last little joke on the reader?

This book is a thoroughly odd piece of work; its conclusion is hardly going to surprise anyone, and it could probably be condensed to the dimensions of a pamphlet without deleting any crucial points. Yet you feel smarter after having read it.