Summarizing Yourself Into Stupidity

Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash, modified by the author.

About two years ago, someone contacted me to help them build a platform for summarizing books. Instead of, say, spending 5–6 hours reading a book, users of this platform could listen to a fifteen-minute summary on their morning walk. Or knock off a couple of books while they’re at the gym. Cliffs Notes for popular non-fiction books.

Reading more “books,” of course, gives you more information. And more information makes you smarter. Right?

Of course, I declined the offer. But who’s the chump now? Summarizing books is a successful and growing industry. There are mobile apps and online platforms, and even successful Youtube channels with the same schtick.

The book summary app isn’t just a tool. It is a philosophy about learning and reading. And it’s a very stupid philosophy — one that mistakes swallowing bullet points for meaningful learning.

Non-fiction books exist to advance arguments. The point of reading such a book isn’t to know what the argument is — that can probably be summarized in a few paragraphs — it is to understand the nature of the argument, evaluate its validity, grapple with the implications of the ideas embedded in the argument, and, perhaps, to gain some enjoyment from the wit or elegance of the writer.

Reading a summary cuts the legs off of all these activities.

Style is the first thing to go. Reading a summary naturally divorces a reader from the writer’s style. Thankfully, for many books, this is no loss at all, as so many general interest non-fiction books adopt the same bland and repetitive readable style, suitable for brains suffering from oxygen loss on airplanes or heat stroke at the beach.

In some cases, it is even a boon. Who has read The Wealth of Nations? It’s 950 pages and the central arguments are already woven into our conversations about modern political economies. Even the Adam Smith Foundation promotes a cliffs-notes version of it. The reason is simple: his writing style is less familiar to modern readers and many of the examples he uses are foreign to us. But even here, there are tradeoffs.

One problem is trust. All summaries (or abridgements) cut us off from the primary source. We have to trust that the summarizer is interpreting the author’s words fairly. I trust the Adam Smith Foundation to hire someone with expertise to abridge and summarize The Wealth of Nations. Do I trust a book summary company to hire competent readers to do the same with your average non-fiction book? No.

Other drawbacks are more subtle. We do not read books just to learn their content, but to continue to learn how to read. If no one tries to read Adam Smith, no one will learn to read him. “Difficult” books are not just pains-in-the-ass — they are also learning opportunities. If you’re interested in learning, confusion is not something to avoid, but something to embrace and resolve.

Of course, the effectiveness of a book summary depends upon how it summarizes. This is where many book summary apps fall short. Claims are omnipresent. Evidence, warrants, and counterclaims, however, are absent. This makes it difficult to determine the strength of the argument and to distinguish authors who have thoughtful, important points to make from grifters and charlatans.

Blinkist, one of the most popular book summary apps, has a tagline: “More knowledge in less time.” But how do you know that you’ve gained knowledge — and not misconceptions, misunderstandings, or other unproductive ideas?

Reading a book is not like eating a donut. You’re supposed to actually think about what you’re reading. It’s the dialogue between the reader and the writer that makes learning happen. If learning is the goal, then you will learn more from reading one book deeply than hearing ten or twenty book summaries.

Imagine a book club filled with people who only read summaries of the books they’re discussing. Or consider what you might remember from a book summary you heard two weeks ago.

You and I may both end up with something like a book summary in our heads, if you actually read the book and I just heard a ten-minute summary. But if you’ve read the book with any depth at all, you’ve argued with it, reflected upon it, discussed it with someone, and compared it to other things you’ve been reading. Your “summary” is yours — relevant to you, the things you know, and the matters that you’re interested in. My summary is what a company decided I should know.

Part of the demand for these apps, I suspect, is not about learning at all, but about an activity frequently confused with learning — pretending to know things in front of other people. With summaries of popular business books under your belt, you can nod your head sagely when a colleague talks about “tipping points,” “deep work,” “the attention economy,” and many other buzzwords.

Perhaps these summaries act as samples, ultimately encouraging readers to go to the source material to digest it more deeply? That’s what some argue. But I suspect that most of the demand comes from a perversely insecure form of personal efficiency: if you are always doing something, how can you fall behind?

Of course, no discussion about cliffing is complete without talking about the book-side of things. Books have to conform to certain publishing formats. The average non-fiction book is between 60,000 to 80,000 words. The publisher’s main concern with any book is whether it will sell. They don’t particularly care about the accuracy of the statements made therein. Or, at the very least, it’s trivial to find publishers who won’t bat an eye at plausible-sounding, but emphatically wrong claims.

Books have also evolved beyond mere vessels for arguments — they’re marketing tools. If you have a book, you can get more clients. You can show up on podcasts and fancy TV shows. And you can write more books and sell online courses and ratchet up that speaking fee.

Authors have responded accordingly. You may have enough material for a couple of long blog posts. But you want to write a book. Well dust off those blog posts and pump them up with a few more anecdotes. Make vague theoretical statements without researching what you’re saying. Add some personal stories — readers want to connect with you. Or, to give you maximum flexibility, why not just make something up?

I feel obligated to say all this with the accompanying hashtag: #notallbooks. I can still find good, tightly written non-fiction books (and I’ll send you a summary of their main points, if you email me). But books follow formulas. Dozens of imitators flourish in the wake of a popular book. And, in some cases, those imitators become even more famous than the books that inspired them. But the hype and the fluff turns these books into intellectual marshmallows. I close many books wondering, “was that it?” It’s no wonder that readers want to turn these books back into their natural form: a bulleted list.

If the readers change and the writers change and the books change, then the whole culture of reading and writing changes. Books follow the same rules of any other media in the modern age: the content must flow. Content producers get ahead by releasing more and more of what consumers like. While content consumers promise to fill all their waking moments (and perhaps even their sleeping ones) churning through the endless media landscape. It’s only natural that many people want to churn more efficiently.

Just a few days ago, one of my book summary apps recommended Deep Work by Cal Newport. The thesis is that long-term value is created through deep engagement. Thank God I only heard a summary.

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