I don’t like book summaries. Anyone who thinks a 300-page book can be reduced to 3 pages of wisdom is either delusional or reading the wrong books.
Yet, I’ve recently found a book summary app called Blinkist to be an incredibly useful tool in my reading arsenal. What’s going on here?
The real benefit or reading comes not from extracting bullet points from books (the “TED-ification” of modern life) but rather from digging deeper to discover connections that others cannot perceive. Tiago Forte gets at this point in The Secret Power of ‘Read It Later’ Apps (which inspired the name of this post):
“The fact is, the ability to read is becoming a source of competitive advantage in the world. … What has become exceedingly scarce (and therefore, valuable) is the physical, emotional, attentional, and mental capability to sit quietly and direct focused attention for sustained periods of time.”
I see book summary apps as a symptom of our increasingly crippled attention spans. We no longer have the focus or time-management skills needed to read deeply, but we still hunger for the value that reading brings.
The solution is not to cram more information into less time (the same bullshit that speed-reading courses teach) but rather to: (1) make more time for what is important and (2) to increase the quality of the books that we consume.
It is for the second purpose–quality–that book summaries become a powerful tool.
I don’t read the newspapers.
This is not because I don’t value current events. Rather, publications are driven to produce noise–they must publish “news” whether important events happen or not.
Instead of reading the papers each morning, we can read a monthly digests or get our news from a curated source to sift signal from noise. Though (I suspect) unintended by their makers, book summary apps are a powerful tool for a similar reason–you can use them to filter good books from bad before you even read them.
There are nearly a million books published each year. How do we know what to read? The bestseller lists are far too restrictive. However, if we choose instead to filter by category, genre, keywords, etc. we end up with hundreds of thousands of books to choose from.
This is where tactical filtering comes in.
I usually read summaries when I am travelling or when I have a short break. Instead of opening Facebook or quickly check the emails, I try to force myself to a summary first. Since I joined … I read more then 100 summaries. If I read a summary that is super exciting and I fell I can highlight every single sentence… this is for me a good indication that I must buy the book and fully read it.
Before, when I needed to decide on whether or not to purchase a book, I’d have to:
- Hear about the book somewhere
- Read reviews on Amazon (lots of noise to sift through)
- Look up the author’s credentials
- Read other peoples’ book notes to get idea of what the book is about (need to search through Google, no guarantee that notes exist)
- Get a sample copy off Amazon (forces me to sync my Kindle, plus I can only skim the first few pages)
This was a huge hassle.
Blinkist, though, offers book recommendations, curated reading lists, author credentials and summaries for over 2000 books–all in one convenient location. In other words, it drastically simplifies the filtering process: more time reading, less time searching.
My Filter Workflow
Next, let’s look at the process I currently use to filter and discover books.
I don’t remember where I got the idea to experiment with book summary apps from, but after I did, I immediately went and installed Blinkist (which offers a free trial). Other options exist, but this was the one that had the most books and an Android app.
After some testing, I’ve developed the following 5-tier filter:
- Build a Reading List – Blinkist offers recommended titles on their home page. I browse through these and add the most exciting ones to my reading list. This is an example of an emotional filter–a positive emotional reaction signals that a book is likely to relevant, insightful, or at least interesting.
- Time Filter – After I build my reading list (I think I added a nearly a hundred books the first time I used Blinkist), I purposely let the list sit. Here, the goal is to use time filtering–what seems relevant at first may not be so a few days later. I find that I no longer cared for 50%+ of the books I saved. I mark those as complete so they don’t show up again in my list.
- Skim – Next, I open up the book summaries when I have a few minutes and skim the summaries. I’ll look for signs that the book is likely to be low quality (too self-helpy, recycled psychology insights, author is journalist, etc.) and delete those books. The ultimate filter, of course, is boredom–if even the skim is boring, there is a low chance (not always true, of course) that the book will be interesting.
- Read – If the book still seems worth my time after I skim it, I’ll read and highlight the summary (highlights sync to Evernote). I use the number of highlights I make as an estimate of how good the book will be.
- Favorite – If I want to read more after I finish the book, I’ll favorite it (so I have a separate list). Sometimes, if I’m really excited, I’ll purchase the book right away.
As an added bonus, the last page of Blinkist summaries provide a list of related books. I’d often use those recommendations to add more potential reads to my reading list.
After my first week on Blinkist, I was able to read/skim 50+ book summaries and added 14 of them to my favorites list. This means that <30% of books that already looked interesting to me got the final cut.
No tool is perfect, and book summary apps have some limitations: the collection of summaries is a small percentage of all the books out there, and the options will tend to be for a popular audience. The more advanced you become, the more you will need to use other methods to find reading sources.
Still, book summary apps like Blinkist can be a powerful tool in your reading arsenal.