I haven’t received a copy of Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s forthcoming book, Without Their Permission, just yet. So I can’t tell you if it’s any good. What I can say is that in addition to its blurbs from Nate Silver and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (which may or may not recommend the book to you), it bears a small mark, pictured here, which indicates that the book is a “5-hour read.” In a picture Ohanian posted of the book on imgur, he adds, “Hope this becomes a trend — I believe we’re the first book to do it, yes?”
I haven’t time to verify this with every book in the world, but yes, I admit, this is the first time I’ve seen an estimate of the time it will take you to read the book actually stamped on the book. I’ve become accustomed, as have many of you, I suppose, to seeing a time estimate on blog posts. It’s hard to trace the precise origins of that, but I remember noticing it because Longreads, an index of long-form journalism on the web, was doing it. Then, it popped up on Medium, a website that… well, it’s not really clear exactly what Medium does yet, other than publish long-form pieces by some writers who are great. But a book: no.
What is the purpose of this sort of thing, I wonder? It certainly isn’t to give you a true idea of what kind of investment is required to read the book. It just can’t be that people think they know exactly how long it will take the average person to read the book. In my anecdotal experience, reading times vary not just by page-length, but also by the difficulty of the prose and the clarity of the author’s thinking. This is a 272-page book, which means the author expects you to read at roughly a page a minute. For most people that would constitute speed-reading, which is usually inadvisable on the full-reading-comprehension scale. Assuming he writes like most tech writers — which is to say, fairly simply, with giant leaps of logic that go down pretty easy — if anything five hours seems a bit long as an estimate for his hopped-up-on-pour-over-coffee-and-mountain-biking audience.
So the purpose isn’t so much informational as it is, I think, sort of hilariously disciplining of both author and reader. A slow reader will feel guilty; a fast reader will feel pride; in both cases the feelings serve no useful purpose. For a writer of any real caliber the thing is actively self-debasing. This is an author saying to you: “I have written a book. Isn’t it great? It is, but it is only worth five hours of your time. It might take you longer to read War and Peace, sure, and you might have to do a couple of re-reads. But the whole sum of human knowledge on offer in this book: it’s five hours only. I’m just efficient like that.”
I understand that we live in the kind of culture where we are scheduled down to the minute, where reading is a thing you fit into your spare time, which is typically the one hour you spend on the subway each day. So I understand needing to organize your time. But what I don’t understand is, as Ohanian evidently does, finding this kind of hectic overscheduling fun. And fun enough that you’re hoping to start a “trend” inaugurating greater and greater parceling out of our time on this earth. I’m sure these people would say it’s so that we can all make the most of every minute until we die. Personally, I don’t want to spend any of those minutes wondering if I measure up to average on reading speed. It’s easier to just agree to keep your investment in books like Ohanian’s to a minimum.