#theinformation

Today, I read The Information, by James Gleick.

The whole thing!

Here’s how it happened.

The Idea

I think it started way back with elementary school summers. I vividly remember waking up on summer mornings in Ann Arbor, rubbing my eyes, and then reaching over to pick up a library book splayed on the ground by my bed to start reading where I’d left off the night before. I’d do this every day. Summers were for reading.

This week, Ian Chan documented his World Series of Poker run on Twitter, in real time. I was captivated. And thinking about summer, and books, and a few other sources of inspiration that had started kicking around in my head, I started to wonder whether I might be able to recast reading as something that exciting—as exciting, as urgent as it always felt when I was young. It hit me: I’d read a book in a day.

So yesterday, I tweeted out a link to a survey with a few book possibilities and asked for help choosing. (As I learned from Robin Sloan: “Google Form + Twitter = fun, fun, nothing but fun.”) The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood narrowly won out. (That story is here.) I woke up this morning at 5:46am—no alarm—just my heart beating a little more quickly than usual.

The Experience

At the halfway point, around 2:00pm, I wrote: This is so fun.

You guys. It was so fun.

Before I started reading, I worried that it would be hard to focus on reading a screen for hours at a time. What I neglected to remember: I already do that for upwards of 10 hours a day! If the writing had been particularly dense or complicated, I think my mind would have drifted. But Gleick writes beautifully; he draws out a complex narrative with economy and personality. In the end, I had no trouble staying focused for 50-minute blocks of time.

I did all the reading on an iPad, in bed, on the sixth floor of an apartment building in New York. I installed an air conditioner last night, which ended up saving me today—I think the heat would have defeated me! I did all my reading in the Kindle app.

At every hour mark, I’d put down the book, fire up Twitter, and tweet out my page count and a fragment from wherever I was in the book at that point along with the hashtag #theinformation. Meanwhile, I’d sync my highlights and notes to Readmill using the Readmill bookmarklet. As friends all over the world began to wake up, I started seeing tweets of encouragement, too. I’d try to stay focused on the book while I was in reading mode, but I’d see notifications lighting up my phone’s screen out of the corner of my eye. Seeing people I care about get into this odd experiment totally made my day. (Thank you.) For posterity, I’ve stashed the day’s tweets here.

Somehow, around hour 1 or 2, I decided that the ninth minute of each hour was the time I’d start reading again. It became ritualistic verging on religious. 4:08pm and 26 seconds? Nope. 4:09pm and 1 second? Go, go, go!

After hitting the halfway point at 1:00pm, I took a one-hour lunch break. I’ll admit: it was a little hard to get the rhythm back. I still had over two hundred pages to go, and the afternoon heat started to seep in at the windowsill. But at 5:00pm, I realized that my previously-immutable 30-pages-per-hour pace had somehow started to pick up. The end was in sight, and it might not take me all the way to 9:00pm after all! This gave me a boost, and I was able to power through to the end.

I started at 6:17am. I finished at 7:37pm. In the end, it took me 630 minutes of reading time—10.5 hours—to complete 422 pages.

It was a great way to spend a day. I can’t wait to try it again.

The Book

The Information is a really, really good book. It’s as good as everyone said it would be, and that’s saying a lot.

The book traces the history of information—from drums to the telegraph to quantum mechanics to the internet, and everything in between. Every discovery is coupled with agency; inventors are lovingly drawn in spare, telling prose.

Gleick’s writing was a pleasant surprise—I’d never read any of his work before, so I had no idea how lyrical it would be. But the book’s strength was in surfacing connections across disciplines, across centuries, and letting them interlace gently—no forced transitions here, only a natural progression of ideas. Reading it, I felt old knowledge start to yawn and peek out of hibernation: high school biology, snippets from history class, Wikipedia articles read once and long forgotten. Best of all, I started to feel more connected to the history of computer science: Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, and Alan Turing all feature prominently. I’d heard their names, but without studying computer science in school, I’d never learned their stories by osmosis. After reading The Information, those three feel like old friends. The command line means more to me now.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book far more than the ending, but I don’t think any decline in quality or rigor is to blame. Rather, the closer Gleick got to the internet, the more I already knew. Because it was a book of arcs in quick succession, the more contemporary arcs weren’t given any more space than the earlier ones. At that coarse resolution, the stories were just too familiar to feel novel. (If I’d been a Babbage scholar, I’m sure I would have felt similarly about the first part of the book.)

Still, I don’t know that I would have projected the story out to the present without Gleick’s guidance. Seeing ideas in a certain order and rendered in beautiful language helped me link all the separate arcs into a whole. And that larger arc was, without a doubt, greater than the sum of its parts.

As I read, I stashed (hundreds!) of highlights and notes here. After I take some time to absorb what just happened, I’m sure the book will start echoing through the rest of my work. But for now, those traces are as good a record as any of what went through my mind today.

Further Reading

When I asked people to vote for a book yesterday, I invited nominations, too. The responses I got were wonderful. I’ve had a few requests to share that list, and after today’s book, letting good information go to waste is the last thing I want to do! So, here’s what people suggested:

I’d like to thank Robin Pam, Bill Cole, Ben Weeks, Marcin Wichary, Ben Bailey, Erik Kennedy, Brian Bailey, Rick Webb, Tim Carmody, Trevor Florence, Michelle Perras, Allison Urban, Alberto Piu, Lois Beckett, Roxanne Krystalli, and Rachel Eisenberg for casting their votes, making thoughtful suggestions, and making this altogether an improbably delightful, collaborative experience for me. Huge thanks, too, to everyone who sent encouragement, links, and excitement my way today. This is definitely an experiment I hope to try again—and one I’d encourage you to try, too!

In the End

Right after I finished The Information, I pulled up Twitter and saw a series of tweets from @natemodi:

I started reading #theinformation this week. A terrific book. I’ve been snatching paragraphs from my KindleApp on subways and in elevators.

So I search for @jamesgleick, #theinformation’s author. Discover that @dianakimball is at this very moment devouring it, in a day.

I discover @dianakimball’s really excellent and thought provoking blog. I wade in. I learn about a brilliant philosopher I hadn’t read.

This is why I love the internet — serendipity on steroids. Thanks, @jamesgleick, @dianakimball.

It was a fitting, beautiful way to end a madcap day.

So often, books are a sideshow. Today was about asking: what if we made it the main event? I don’t know if every day can be like this one, but I know I want more days like today: words colliding, heart beating faster, serendipity in motion.