I’ve always been a whole book reader.
So whenever some ad for a book summarizing service like Blinkist weaseled its way into my awareness, I’d dismiss it with a blink of an eye.
Same goes for bloggers’ book summaries. It boggles my mind how popular these are. Nat Eliason has made tens of thousands of dollars selling his Evernote book notes. What? Why? How? Who?
Not me, that’s for sure.
And I’d pat myself on the back thinking, “There’s no way Jeff Bezos or Michelle Obama read bloggers’ book notes or Blinkist book summaries.”
Despite the fact that Dana’s Australian, I take him to be a reasonably trustworthy source. And I’ve read quite a few books about being open-minded and avoiding self-justification. So Dana’s email got me wondering:
Should I not be so quick to dismiss book summaries?
Sadly, I couldn’t find a book about the topic. So I scoured Reddit threads, Medium posts, and a decent Scott Young article and all its comments for pros and cons of book summaries.
I also used my own brain to think about it.
And I came up with three analogies that I think help wrap your around the question of whether, or when, book summaries are worth it:
Reading is like traveling.
Reading a book is like renting a long-term Airbnb in a foreign location. Reading book summaries is hopscotching from one destination to the next.
Spending quality time in a book exposes you to the subtle nuances that you’ll miss if all you do is fly through the highlights. And this can make all the difference between believing a semi-accurate stereotype and understanding the culture that drives this perception.
But any exploration is better than none. And even a crappy book summary is better than getting suckered into clickbait country.
This brings to mind an Aziz Ansari joke:
“I spend so much time on the Internet…I feel like I’m a million pages into the worst book ever, and I’m never going to stop reading.”Aziz Ansari
Another use-case of book summaries is when you need to explore a topic for business or studies. A quick in-and-out to check things out makes sense. You can always return to spend more time later if needed.
This is also true if you’re already super familiar with the area. It may not be worth your energy to re-cover trodden terrain. Book summaries help you quickly gather if there are new developments worth checking out more thoroughly.
And speaking of new, if you’re open-minded enough to venture beyond your regular domains, there’s a chance of discovering new areas of interest.
But the more you flit about, the more you’ll be susceptible to info FOMO. This can perpetuate a negative cycle where you feel you always have more to see and can’t settle down. So you end up shallow-brained and rootless—full of interesting anecdotes and trivia, but devoid of depth.
Pre-conclusion: Use book summaries for business and scouting, but not for pleasure.
Reading is like eating.
Books are like home-cooked full-course meals. Book summaries are like nutritional supplements or Soylent.
Summaries intend to replicate the nutritional value of the organic original. Some may even come close to doing so. But your brain digests them differently.
The fluffy fiber of books—stories, examples, studies, etc.—gives your brain the time it needs to digest the core nutrients within. It’s slow, filling, and even tiring to consume, but that’s part of the process.
On the other hand, authors sometimes go overboard with the filling. In those instances, summaries can be better for you because they cut out the junk.
And some authors whip up such dense books that simple palates like mine find them impossible to get through. An easily-swallowed book summary may be a lot better than nothing. It may even help us develop more sophisticated tastes.
But consuming too many dense summaries too fast may even be bad for you. This information overload may cause you to suffer “Type II diabetes of the mind,” like I struggled with when I was hooked on double-speed podcasts and Twitter feeds.
You also have to wonder, Who’s concocting these book summaries? I believe Blinkist’s writers have some controls and qualifications. But bloggers like me? Yikes.
Pre-conclusion: A healthy information diet probably consists of mostly books, with the occasional book summary for supplementation.
Reading is like working out.
Book summaries are bicep-curl-esque exercises that isolate specific muscles. Books are compound exercises like squats.
If you want to build popcorn muscle knowledge while barely breaking a sweat, go ahead and pump out high reps with book summaries. Just know that this inflated “intelligence” has minimal practical use and leaves you with a limited range of motion that easily tears.
It’s not the same as the well-rounded, flexible, and functional brains you gain from books.
Because books do more than strengthen you in a specific area. They simultaneously improve concentration endurance, mental mobility, and cerebral coordination.
Yes, they take more work. But if you’re among the dwindling few still willing to put in time and effort in today’s lazy age, this is a competitive advantage.
You can earn similar advantages by developing deep strength on a specific subject. Superficially, two books may appear to target the same topic. So why bother with both? Because the more angles you hit a subject from, the more robust and resilient your knowledge becomes—and more useful in real life.
Perhaps once you’ve built a balanced foundational strength, book summaries can help maintain it. And they can be helpful for targeting or rehabbing a specific weakness.
Pre-conclusion: For a fit mind, summaries should come as a compliment, not a replacement, to the compound training that only books provide.
In Summary About Summaries
I’ve changed my mind about book summaries.
Book summaries can help me explore more widely and develop a healthier, fitter mind.
So I’ll begin using book summaries for discovery. And I will use them after reading books to enhance the notes I take as part of my lifelogging practice.
But I’m not about to buy a Blinkist subscription anytime soon.
A Third (Better?) Alternative
I realized something else:
All three of these analogies are about topics I know well.
And you know how I acquired that knowledge?
Two primary sources:
- From books. I’ve read dozens of titles on travel, nutrition, and exercise. So I suppose that’s another argument in favor of books and against book summaries: The more in-depth you understand a topic, the better you can use that knowledge to wrap your head around new ones.
- From experience. And I think what I’ve learned from experience exceeds what I’ve learned from books.
So my biggest takeaway is this:
Spend less time reading and more time doing.