Please Be Brief

Is Blinkist, a nonfiction-book summary app, the best way to cram information into my brain?

Matthias Tunger / Corbis

Blinkist is an app that aims to solve a problem I thought only I had: It summarizes thick nonfiction books into digestible summaries that take 15 minutes to read, as opposed to days or weeks.

It seems to know its audience, since I first saw it advertised in my Facebook feed. I have to read a lot of nonfiction books for my job. On top of that, other people want me to read the nonfiction books they’ve written for their jobs. My mail is an endless stream of books on how to be happy, or why you shouldn’t worry about being happy, or why the keys to both not worrying and happiness lie within your microbiome.

I want to read them all! I am making an effort. My nightstand groans under the weight of dozens of hardcovers, highlighters, kindle chargers, and post-it notes with the passwords to proprietary e-book galley websites.

But my time, like all of humanity’s, is limited. The unread books beckon, but so do the unread New Yorkers and unread Washingtonians that are addressed to the person who lived in our apartment before us—and we should really go to some of these “100 Very Best Restaurants” sometime. Not to mention Pocket and Instapaper. (Plus, who am I kidding: Netflix.) It’s a never-ending Thanksgiving dinner of #content—so, so good, but way, way too much.

I need a shortcut. I have experimented with info-cramming before, in the form of a speed-reading app, but I (and many researchers) found that technique to be lacking.

I thought I’d test out Blinkist to see if it was any better. You can read a pre-selected book daily for free, but to pick your own, highlight, and read offline costs $50 a year. I also compared it to its most obvious—and free—analog, Wikipedia.

For the test material, I settled on Quiet, Susan Cain’s 2012 book about introverts. I had read the actual book carefully, but more than a year ago. I felt like I was going into the Blinkist v. Wikipedia v. Actually Reading smackdown with fresh eyes, but with enough knowledge to check it against the original. I fired up my trial version of Blinkist, opened up the Quiet Wikipedia page, and prepared to be briefed.

* * *

The first notable thing about Blinkist is how weirdly it’s written. Despite the brevity, much of it reads like “a good first draft,” as an editor might say:

“Introverts’ tendency to meditate on all their experiences and sensory stimuli enables them to create maximum artistic and intellectual output,” the app proclaims, much more stridently than Cain ever did. “Introverts are able to yield profits on the stock market in times of crisis, and, in the past, they have been the brains behind cultural milestones like Schindler’s List and the theory of relativity.” (In no particular order, apparently.)

Blinkist fares better when it describes scientific studies, a necessary but tedious job for many nonfiction authors. At one point, it explains an experiment meant to differentiate highly reactive people, who are more sensitive to stimuli, from low-reactive ones. The study involved making infants sniff alcohol-soaked cotton swabs, and though it was interesting at its original three-page length, two Blinkist paragraphs also sufficed.

I was curious to see how either Blinkist or Wikipedia would handle anecdotes, the glue that holds all the cocktail-party nuggets of nonfiction books together. You remember Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, but it’s probably because he used the Beatles’s marathon jam sessions in sweaty Hamburg nightclubs to illustrate it. It’s hard to fit that kind of juice into a iPhone-sized synopsis.

Wikipedia avoids any and all human-interest tidbits. I kept waiting for a glimmer of Cain’s story of how Steve Wozniak’s introversion helped him—and Apple—ascend the early computing world. Instead, Woz was relegated to a link of “notable individuals” at the bottom of the page. Similarly, Cain’s journey to a Tony Robbins self-help seminar is one of the most memorable parts of her book, but it merits just a glancing reference in the Wikipedia entry.

Blinkist doesn’t provide either of those stories, either, but it does give Dale Carnegie’s bio a college try.

But then, this:

“In nineteenth-century America, people lived in the country,” Blinkist explains. “Everybody knew everybody, and families were tightly knit.”

That lead into two paragraphs about how urbanization brought about the rise of the extraversion ideal. Maybe there was no better way to say that briefly. But there seems to be little value in saying it that way, specifically.

Each Blinkist section summary ends with a bolded takeaway, such as “Flipping the switch: Introverts can also act like extroverts” or “A truly skilled leader can unite the talents of introverts and extroverts.” That sounds ... fine, and is possibly even true, but are you really going to remember that? Much less fish it out of your mental vault at a job interview or whatever utilitarian situation you’ve turned to Blinkist for?

Surprisingly, the Wikipedia article, famously un-professional as it is, does a better job of highlighting Cain’s more notable contributions to the ideas ecosystem. It adequately sums up how she defines introversion differently than shyness; the two were commonly conflated before the book came out. It also touches on her crusade against open-plan offices—a sentiment that not only launched a million passive-aggressive news articles, but also forms the basis of Cain’s more recent work as an office-architecture consultant.

In Blinkist, meanwhile, even the final “key messages” section contained points that were far too vague and reductivist: “Extroverts like noise and need stimuli; introverts like to be alone and think.” That statement brings to mind a parody video showing what Meghan Trainor’s famous song would sound like if she was really all about that bass and preferred no treble whatsoever. Surely, some extroverts think sometimes. And there probably exists an introvert or two who has longed for the occasional stimulus.

* * *

The whole exercise made me question the point of reading. If people just want the “takeaways” from nonfiction tomes, why even bother with books, Wikipedia, or Blinkist? Why not just read some pop-science news articles? Or better yet, skip straight to the abstracts of the studies those stories are based on?

The reason people don’t do that, of course, is that reading news articles is easier and more fun than digging through PubMed. (At least, that is our intention.) And relaxing with a good book, full of rich anecdotes about the lives of real, introverted heroes, is exactly the kind of thing introverts find enjoyable.

Ultimately, I thought Wikipedia would be good enough for something like “going to a meet-and-greet organized by your local Introverts’ Society.” Given that such an event, by definition, would never take place, however, I’m struggling to think of another use-case. Maybe a first date with a book editor?

Someone cramming for some crucial networking function or management seminar will probably find Blinkist helpful—in fact, they attest to as much. But even with my own pragmatic ends in mind, I got the sense I was studying for a midterm of my own making. Blinkist’s value-add lies in trimming away everything but the “lessons” of nonfiction works. Fun, apparently, is just another thing left on the cutting-room floor.