It started, for Ashlee Vance, with an email. The author of a recent (and much-quoted) biography of the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk recently received a note from a reader, the CEO of the San Francisco-based data-analysis startup Kaggle:
LOVED the book. Listened to it on Audible at 2x speed and finished it in three days. Couldn't put it down. Congrats!
For Vance, an author who ostensibly did all the things authors do when working on their books—slowly crafting narratives, painstakingly choosing words, deliberating over the lengths and tones and rhythms of sentences—the note came as something of a shock. “It had never occurred to me,” Vance wrote, “that people might listen to the book at 2x speed in order to ingest the information at a quicker rate. But here was proof that such things occur.”
Such things! Vance added: “This struck me as such a Silicon Valley thing to do. Hook your brain to the machine and download at the best transfer rate available.”
He’s right, to an extent. Reading a book and listening to a book are, of course, extremely different propositions—technologically, experientially, everything. (The email’s “couldn’t put it down,” Vance notes, suggests romantic images of being curled up in bed with a collection of pulped wood—not, on the other hand, of earbuds that accompany one at work/at the gym/running errands.) And speed-listening represents yet another step away from the curled-in-bed ideal. It suggests that a book exists not primarily for pleasure, but rather for being sucked of its precious information as efficiently as possible. It suggests that digital advances can help make an extremely old activity—reading—newly transactional. It suggests that all the artistry Vance put into this book, the careful words and cadences, has been subsumed, to some extent, in the speed of a chipmunked playback.