I’m all for productivity, time management, and some of the other things that occupy the minds of prolific Twitter users, entrepreneurs, digital nomads, and Tim Ferriss fans. I’m also a big book nerd. There’s nothing more satisfying than reading a really good book while sipping wine and relaxing on holiday. But according to the internet hyper-productivity brigade, reading is a waste of precious time.
On the internet, books that are longer than 100 pages are demonized.
Here are some examples of the drivel that pops up on Twitter and other places where intelligent people say stupid things:
“Books should be no longer than 20 pages. Reading is tedious and the information can be summarized easily with an app”
“I wish there was a way of extracting the information I want from all books so I could consume more”
Wow. I didn't realize that the sole purpose of reading was information extraction. Maybe the great novelists and non-fiction writers had it all wrong. Pamphlets would have saved us from wasting time on their long books.
- Let's all write in bullet points!
- Tweets are the most efficient way of communicating, you know!
- Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid could have saved a lot of his time and our time if he'd only created a short PDF out of his notoriously long and dense tome. Nobody's reading that book for the pleasure of reading, surely…
TL;DR (too long didn't read) is a favourite acronym of interwebbers. You might have seen it. I want to rename it TL;DR (too lazy didn't read).
Here's another acronym:
AI – Artificial Insemination (of bullet points into our brains)
Here's an idea, let’s get Artificial Intelligence bots to read books for us. They can then create book summaries and present short versions of people's hard work. Oh, an app already does this.
Blinkist: Surface-Skimming Technology For Busy People
As you might have guessed by now, this is not a guide to the best book summary app.
The Blinkist book summary app is huge right now. People love it because people have no time. The same people stuff their heads with surface-skimmed tidbits of information they will forget quickly, rather than learn something. Want to learn something, I mean, really learn something? Skip this app. And skip Uptime, a competitor that basically turns books into a collection of tweets.
People who blog about Blinkist (they're called affiliates) and people will no imagination peddle the notion that reading is tedious. Fans of this “self-improvement app” write boring blog posts about why reading entire blog posts is a waste of time. Ironic.
“You need book summaries!”, they claim. And there’s an app for that….
Book summaries will not make you smarter or improve your life. Here's why.
There are two ways of learning (I'll use my ironical bullet-points to illustrate):
Apps like Blinkist offer neither of these learning methods. So why use book summary apps?
There are two scenarios where you might want to memorize random quotes and messages from a book:
- To impress a date
- To impress your boss
How cool we look on dates when we can spout meaningful ideas on life from The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. This is a great book, worthy of everyone's time but show-offs skim the book for things to impress people with.
What about Seneca? The writings of this 2000-year-old darling of modern-day Silicon Valley bros offer us bite-sized quotable statements about life. Do questions is do we even need to read Seneca when Blinkist can give us the quotes? Those 10 or 20 lines to live by are all we need for a better life. And to impress other people with.
This obsession with removing the fluff is just adding to the distracted-mind problem we modern humans battle with.
Entrepreneurs now boast about how short their advice books are. Yep. They do this. Like a reverse dick-measuring content. The guy with the shortest one wins.
Business Advice Summarized In One Sentence
Let's take this concept of ever shorter books even further. The fact is that you don’t even need business books to get the best bit of advice. Here, let me help. You just need this one nugget of information:
Create products that people want to buy!
That’s it. An entire encyclopaedia of books in one sentence.
Now, give me your money!
But clever people need context. Soundbites don't cut it. Like the motivational quotes on Twitter and Facebook (a practice I’d love to see filtered out by bots – there’s a business idea for you), words out of context mean nothing. Bashing us over the head with quotes won’t help. It's just more noise and less signal.
The human brain craves context to make sense of things. Memory experts use mnemonics as a way of remembering things. Good business books might appear to be filled with fluff but this “padding” is there to give context. If we strip out the context we’re left with a heading and some main points. Skimming books leaves us with a Buzzfeed-level of understanding.
Some time ago, a guy called Harold Pollack wrote a few rules about finance on an index card. Pollack then posted a photo of the index card online. It went viral (meaning a lot of people shared it). Major news site picked up on the index card and journalists admired its simplicity. That’s a great example of a business book (on finance) condensed to the size of a Facebook post. Oh yeah, the fluff was well and truly removed on that topic. The next thing Pollack did was to write a book.
What? A real book? Isn't that going backwards?
The modern rules of ADHD-like business learning frown upon people expanding on topics.
Pollack ignored the internet and wrote the book, and it did very well. Did he add fluff? I don't know. I didn’t read it. But in his own words, he added context. Like food bloggers that add context to recipes, it's all part of creating a big picture and making life, art, and entertainment more than just a to-do list.
Books Are The Perfect Length, Thank You
Someone on the Twittersphere recently complained that business books are too long. The suggested solution was to shorten them to a few lines. They also suggested rewarding authors for writing shorter books.
It reminds me of my English studies in school. The quickest path to exam success was to learn-by-heart book summaries of the works of Shakespeare. At exam time we’d regurgitate, from short-term memory, everything we'd “learned” from these book summaries.
What did I learn? I learned nothing.
Would my writing be better if, at my impressionable age, I had studied the works of the greatest writer in the English language? Hard to say, but I do believe that bullet points hinder deep thought. Shakespeare wasn't exactly on my reading list, but I certainly wouldn't turn the work of one of the greats into a tweet.
A Novel Idea – Read For Pleasure!
When I read books I’m not just doing it only for the education or the insights. I'm also reading for the pleasure of reading. Even business books can be fascinating reads. Why rehash them as BuzzFeed articles?
Fiction can be summarised too. And I've seen some examples of novel summaries pawned as the “better” version. Better, in this case, meaning that the unimportant words are removed. This is insane. I don’t care about the actual plot in half the fictional books I read. Good books are so because of how the words flow on the page and how the writer energizes my mind. This is why Jeffrey Archer never appealed. I can’t get excited about a story that reads like a newspaper article, devoid of emotion and finesse.
The popularity of speed reading apps and software that summarises books is a plague that should end. The quest for “facts” is taking the joy out of reading.
Expect Amazon to design a way to chop books down to one-line points based on your preferences. Pretty soon we won’t need to read much at all. We can take those bullet points, run them through a speed reading app which converts them to audio, play it at 2x and in mere minutes we’ve got the entire works of Steinbeck lodged in our brains. The next time the great American novelist is mentioned at a party we can sound clever by mentioning the most important points about his work.
Sound bites and summaries. Nuggets of information used to impress others and make people feel superior.
I’m reading Science in the Soul by Richard Dawkins. If you haven’t read it you can probably guess that it’s a book about science. A lofty topic that the over-optimisation brigade will no doubt prefer to summarise. And chopping even the introduction is a dumb idea.
Dawkins writes like a poet. Every line is fascinating thanks not only to the concepts he teaches us but also the beautiful prose he uses.
Few people are this good at making heavy subjects interesting and exciting as this author.
And sure, I can use an app to give me the “important information” from this book. But is that what life is all about? Accumulating facts? They’re great for impressing your boring friends but they don’t enrich your life the way good communication does.
Internet forums like Reddit and Quora, and social media streams are where boring people go to publish nuggets like, “how can I read books and gain knowledge faster?”.
Knowledge is power after all, and these people want power. But power for what? They are saying, “I want to read x number of non-fiction books a week but I don’t have the time or the inclination to put in the hours”.
Again, I don't doubt the motivation for this behaviour: to impress their friends with nuggets of wisdom at dinner parties. It reminds me of the scene in Good Will Hunting when a frat boy tries to embarrass Ben Affleck's character by dropping lofty quotes from books he (the bragger) hadn’t read. Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon) steps in and points out that the frat boy had plagiarised the summaries of another writer. He’d been memorising text snippets for moments just like these. It's before Blinkist's time though.
Here’s a radical thought. Why not read a book for the sheer pleasure of reading a book? The reading experience should not be reduced to sound bites. Big ideas take time to teach. Are non-fiction books not pleasurable? Are non-fiction books merely a vehicle for communicating bullet points in long-form?
Another irony is that people who claim they don't have time to read are the same that preach about people doing something wrong if they don't have time to meditate.
If the non-fiction books you choose are boring, unemotional, and uninspiring, try reading something else! Here are three starters from some of the world's best writers:
- The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan
- Freakonomics – Stephen J. Dubner & Steven Levitt
- A short history of the world – Bill Bryson
Podcast Audio Summaries – The Next Bad Idea
Why didn't I think of this? Distill podcasts down to a few sound bites and sell them to monkey-brained iPhone junkies. While we’re at it let’s just make Shakespeare’s works a series of tweets. We can add the sequence (1/100, 2/100) to each tweet so people can follow along.
Should we chop real conversations down to sound bites? Is extracting headlines a positive use of modern communication technology? How many people will even read this line?
Book Summary Websites
We have apps and podcasts now. But before that, we had book summary websites. Many personal development bloggers have also seized the opportunity to create a chapter by chapter summaries of books. It's great for SEO. It's great for making commissions from book sales. While the key insights summaries are interesting, these blogs always feel shallow to me.
Use these sites for research to see if a book piques your interest. You can't trust the reviews on Amazon.
I’m off to the beach with a long, well-written book I do not want to be summarised by an app, thank you.