We have spoken before in this space about the accelerating pace of life, and how it is leading to changes in how we measure time. A minute of silence, for example, has given way to a moment of silence. In January, 2011, the crowd at the college football championship game in Glendale, Arizona, was asked to observe a moment of silence for the victims of the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. The “moment” lasted about four seconds.
Now we have a new benchmark that reflects that quickening pace. How much time should we invest in reading — or actually listening to — a book? A new company in Norway thinks it has the answer: 29 minutes. It is marketing a wide range of audio books (also available in print) that you can absorb in less time than it takes to consume the evening news or an episode of Modern Family.
It sounds too good to be true, but apparently it is. The 29-minute books are being offered by www.29minutebooks.com. I went to the website and checked out the offerings.
The books, available for as little as $2.99, include titles such as Learning about Stress Relief, China’s Economic Journey from Mao to a Superpower, American Literature — What You Shouldn’t Miss, Etiquette and How to Behave Around the World, and Learning about Leadership.
One about Nikola Tesla caught my attention. Tesla, that’s the namesake of the car. The blurb for the book described the subject as “one of the most prominent scientists in the 20th century. Tesla was the engineer behind AC current, Tesla coil, and a lot of other inventions. But still Tesla is a secret for most of the world.”
No mention of the car, or why anyone would associate this guy with a car. Also no mention of an author. In fact, no authors are mentioned anywhere on the website. But I guess when you’re pushing books in a 29-minute format you can’t afford to waste any seconds on extraneous information like that.
The goal instead is to be quick and to the point. Founded in Bergen, Norway, in 2014, 29 Minute Books has what the website describes as a “humble vision”: to be “the leading distributor and publisher of short theme-based electronic books.”
Says the CEO and founder, Frank Homme: “Our business model is super simple. We believe people want to fill their heads with useful information and not just music or tiresome games, music and gibberish. And now they can.”
As the website says, “It’s stupid not to be smart.” And “life is too short for long boring books!”
At one point in my life that sales pitch would have been hook, line, and sinker for me. I think back to my college days, when I was looking for any shortcuts I could find to help me down the path to graduation — a path that was severely impeded by roadblocks created by my 40-plus hour a week obsession with the Daily Princetonian.
In the spring term of my sophomore year, I looked for the 29-minute solution to an English course that called for the reading of a novel every week. When the schedule came around to Dickens’ 1853 classic, Bleak House, I knew I was in trouble. It was nearly 1,000 pages — I didn’t even try to read it.
Back in my sophomore year, 1967, I probably considered reading a Cliffs Notes version of Bleak House. For us at Princeton, in fact, it would have been a patriotic shortcut: A member of Princeton’s Class of ’67, Jim Hillegass, was the son of Clifton K. Hillegass, the actual “Cliff” who founded the highly profitable CliffsNotes. But even given the college tie, the CliffsNotes version was probably 70 pages or more (figuring a page of summary per chapter). I doubt even that could have been read in 29 minutes.
(Today an “enterprising” student might consult Sparknotes online. There the Bleak House plot summary alone consumes nearly 1,600 words. The book’s 67 chapters are broken into 13 sections for “summary and analysis.” I picked one of those 13 at random — it was more than 1,700 words. That would have been another daunting challenge for a student such as myself trying to game the academic requirement and get back to serious newspapering.)
There was another reason for not even trying to read Bleak House. At that stage of my college career I assumed that no matter how much I prepared I was almost sure to be out-gunned in the preceptorial (a discussion group consisting of about a dozen students) by the polished prep school kids who could talk the talk with most any junior level faculty member.
When the precept rolled around — on a Tuesday morning, as I recall — I was totally unprepared. I guessed that even the prep school kids were not as prepared as they could have been. The preceptor, Albert Wertheim (who went from Princeton to a distinguished career at the University of Indiana), must have begun to sense that the slick veneers acquired at Phillips Exeter, Andover, Choate, Deerfield, et al, were simply thin coatings over nothing more than pure academic horseshit, now flowing in vast quantities.
About 10 minutes into the class, Wertheim called a halt to the discussion and asked each of us to tell him how much of the book we had read. The answers began at the end of the table opposite me — I would be the last one called on. The answers flowed like effluent through a well pitched pipe.
Well, sir, I read the first three chapters, skimmed through to the end, and read the last three chapters very carefully.
Next: I read the first three or four pages of each chapter.
Next: I read the CliffsNotes version and then read the pivotal chapters in depth.
And so it went. Finally the question came to me, and I decided to be the first honest man in the room.
How much of the book had I read? I didn’t read the book, sir.
Upon hindsight I suspect that Wertheim may have lost his patience one or two BS’ers before me. But I was the final straw. “Mr. Rein. You can pack up your things and leave this precept.”
My jaw dropped as far and as hard as anyone else’s in the precept. And I left. It was the first time in my academic career that I — the ninth grade boy genius, after all — had ever been the center of attention for anything other than academic excellence.
The next day I got a postcard at my dorm room. Wertheim: If you show up at the next precept [on a Friday, as I recall], I will consider that a fresh start on this assignment.
I took the professor up on the offer. Putting the student newspaper work onto the back burner for a change, I plunged into Bleak House, spending what felt like 29 hours reading the damn thing. It turned out to be a turning point. I showed up at the next precept prepared — for one of the first times in my college career — and came to a surprising realization: the slick prep school guys who had seemed so polished in their presentations, in fact, were no smarter than me.
It may be stupid not to be smart but it might not be so smart to think that you can learn everything you need to know in 29 minutes or less. Bleak House, a “long boring book” by some standards, turned out to be a game changer for me. You want to know what it’s all about? I’ll need to consult www.sparknotes.com. Give me a few moments — or possibly a few minutes — please.