I felt a certain resonance the other day as I headed into Philly on the SUV parade route - the Schuylkill Expressway, although the region's other highways are surely no different - and learned about problems with the nation's automobiles.
How Chrysler battled bankruptcy.
How Toyota became a world leader through innovation. (Its top exec came to Detroit to observe their assembly lines. Unimpressed, he nevertheless learned valuable lessons about stocking from American supermarkets.)
How the oil and auto lobbies - sometimes in league, sometimes at odds - have influenced national policy.
And how a plucky entrepreneur came out with a jazzy electric sports car that would go from zero to 60 in four seconds.
I was listening to Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future, by Vijay V. Vaitheeswaram and Iain Carson, both of the Economist. Hachette Audio has recorded an abridgment (3 hours, $24.98), with Vaitheeswaram narrating.
The stakes are high. The top oil and automobile giants dominate the list of top 50 corporations, the authors tell us. Each has sales between $100 billion and $200 billion dollars.
Yet cars and light trucks - 60 million produced per year - consume most of the 85 million barrels of oil produced every day around the world and produce most of the pollution that comes from mobile sources.
Vaitheeswaram, an MIT-trained engineer who spent 10 years covering environmental and energy issues, reads with clarity, conviction, authority and, perhaps most important, an ease that escapes most amateur narrators. Nonfiction can be dense, but I had no trouble following him.
Perhaps the abridgment helped. The print book is 352 pages, which loosely - very loosely, given the vagaries of type size and reading speed - translates into a recording of nearly 12 hours. But this was only three.
Even pared to this more digestible size, there were no gaps I could detect.
This could well suggest a new/old niche for audio. The industry has been getting away from abridgments, often viewed as a lesser form because stuff is missing. Then again, there are shelves' worth of nonfiction books I've been interested in, but not so interested that I was willing to invest 20 or 30 hours.
The world needs something between an hour-long National Public Radio interview or a magazine article and a doorstop of a book - or an audio that takes three weeks of commutes to listen to.
The three-hour Zoom was tidy, enticing and satisfying.
It wasn't even all bad news. For all we hear about China becoming the world's biggest polluter as it builds coal plant after coal plant and its newly wealthy buy millions of cars, the authors suggest that instead of following the rest of the countries down the path of pollution, China may be leapfrogging everyone else into a green infrastructure.
They envision a radically different United States as well, powered by hydrogen, digital technology, clean electricity. Maybe we'll even wean ourselves off oil before it runs out.
As I looked at the vehicles around me - the SUVs, the sports cars, the sedans, the Priuses, the 18-wheelers - all of us bumper to bumper, things took on an importance and a relevance they hadn't had before.
What a way to commute!