Too busy to read books? There’s an app for that!

We are all familiar with the sinking feeling that the list of books that one would like to read but have not yet found the time to do so grows longer by the day. It is hopeless to think that we will ever catch up and most of us are resigned to that somber fact. But Anthony Lane alerts me to a new app called Blinkist that addresses that need..

Blinkist is an app. If I had to summarize what it does, I would say that it summarizes like crazy. It takes an existing book and crunches it down to a series of what are called Blinks. On average, these amount to around two thousand words.

Once you are Blinked in, your days will follow a new pattern. Instead of being woken by an alarm, or by a bored spaniel licking your face, you will find yourself greeted by a Daily Blink. This will arrive, with a ping, on your phone, alerting you to a book that, suitably pruned, is ready to be served up for your personal edification.

Lane says that the appeal of this is obvious for those who feel the need to keep abreast of books that they feel that should be read but do not have the time for.

What with all the competing cultural forces raining down upon us, we need no second invitation not to read. So one has to ask: If Twain’s book, or Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” can be scrunched down to a near-minimum, for speed-reading and easy listening, is that a travesty or a useful prop? Do little bits of literature retain the power to provoke us, and even spur us on to grander things, or are they, in fact, worse than no literature at all?

There have been many such attempts before. Perhaps some of you remember Reader’s Digest, a monthly paperback magazine that contained summaries of longer articles found elsewhere. Each volume had at the end one book condensation. They would also separately publish collections of the book condensations and one would sometimes find people having bookshelves of these condensed books, rather than the original works. The Reader’s Digest magazines seemed to be in a lot of English-speaking households in Sri Lanka when I was growing up. I used to like it for the sections on jokes that were found throughout each issue, grouped under headings like “Laughter, the Best Medicine” or “Life in these United States” or “Humor in Uniform”. While reading through it for the jokes, I would also read some of the articles and the occasional book. It had a decidedly conservative and anti-Communist slant. I had thought the magazine was defunct because I have not see them anywhere for many years but apparently it is still being published.

I also recall in middle school, one of our English texts was Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb, where the two editors condensed some of the better-known plays in a form that they thought was more suitable for children, by cutting out the violence and sex.

Needless to say, this is a perfect use for AI technology, which can not only quickly summarize the books but also create audio versions.

But a lot is lost in this kind of condensing, as one person wrote in response to Lane’s article.

Many years ago, as an aspiring voice actor, I was hired to narrate several classics that had been condensed for middle schoolers. I still cringe at the memory of what was done to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Gone was any mention of Huck’s father; rather than running away from an alcoholic abuser, Huck was portrayed as a happy-go-lucky lad who just happens to like to sleep outdoors. Gone, also, was Jim’s flight from slavery; in the condensed version, he’s just a friend of Huck’s who wants to go adventuring.

The people behind this bowdlerization, and others, seemed to believe that, by removing anything remotely unpleasant or possibly controversial, they were helping young people to develop a love of story, without concern for what the original stories actually mean. In reality, young people exposed to these versions of such classics are deprived of the opportunity to fully assess and appreciate these books, and may even be absorbing messages that are completely antithetical to what their authors intended.

That is the problem. When it comes to fiction, book condensers like Blinkist or the earlier Lambs seem to work on the assumption that what readers are looking for is the story. But books are far more than that. A good writer embeds the story in a rich context of feelings, emotions, and imagery, and it is those that really convey messages and affect the reader. In the case of Shakespeare, many of his stories, especially the comedies, are downright silly. It is the language and characters that resonate.

Furthermore, whenever you abridge or paraphrase the words of another, you are inevitably distorting the writer’s message. When I assigned students papers to write, I would recommend to them that whenever possible, when using the ideas of others, to use direct quotes rather than paraphrases because there was less chance of distortion. But some of my colleagues felt differently and recommended the opposite, that students paraphrase rather than give direct quotes. They reasoned that this would show whether they had understood what the author was saying. My feeling was that their essays as a whole should display understanding, not the selections they included.


  1. Jörg says

    I like Wikipedia as an entry point to books. Of course, Wikipedia authors are also biased. But they usually provide links to other sources about the topic.

  2. says

    One of Douglas Adams’s non-Hitchhikers’-Guide novels had an Electric Monk, who would believe whatever things you didn’t have time to believe. CAUTION: Do not ask your Electric Monk to verify whether a critical machine or system is working properly.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    I wanna assemble a collection* of Blink summaries, then ask Blink to summarize them for me.

    *Ideally, for the entire Library of Congress (or a world equivalent, if one exists).

  4. Tethys says

    When I was a wee child I attempted to read the entire school library. It did not take long to realize the impossibility of that happening.

    I enjoy reading. Listening to someone else read is generally going to be much slower than my reading pace, and I won’t retain it as well.

    I have zero interest in an AI summary of a book, I absolutely despise listening to robot voice-overs.
    The more AI I see, the more I’m convinced it’s a pointless, wasteful, tech- bro dream.

  5. Katydid says

    I’ve noticed that people who complain to me that they don’t have time to read books somehow find the time to scroll their phones hours every day. Just one example; I have a friend of more than 30 years. We raised our kids together, and back in the days when we had toddlers at home and full time jobs, we used to swap paperback mysteries with each other. We continued to swap books as the kids got older and had sports and after-school classes and homework they needed help with and we still had full-time jobs. Now that she’s divorced and her kids are grown and out on their own adulting, she claims she has no time to read. She doesn’t even have time to text; she sends a stream of illiterate AI-assisted word-to-text messages. But ask her about the latest craze on TikTok or what the latest influencer is up to, and she can talk for hours.

  6. seachange says

    An explanation as to why you overquote.

    The two-hour and one-hour condensations of Dragonball Z are much more entertaining than the series. (The one-hour one is more accurate, go figure.) I have personal experience that with this information alone I could keep fans of the series fully engaged.

    I have since forgotten it. It was an ‘in’ to a friend group, and it *worked*.

  7. Robbo says

    here you go Pierce R. Butler, I’ve summarized the whole of the internet, compressing it into a two digit number:


    *coincidentally, or not, Fox Mulder’s apartment number

  8. Deepak Shetty says

    Lane says that the appeal of this is obvious for those who feel the need to keep abreast of books that they feel that should be read but do not have the time for.

    Somehow , as a teen , Shakespeare never appealed to me -- but given the numerous references , i did read some abridged versions just to know the highlights. Then as I got into some western comic books (like Gaiman) there are so many references to Norse/Greek mythology which is mostly unfamiliar to me, growing up in India, that these kind of summaries help -- because I was not really interested in those works , just in the works that were referencing them.

    But books are far more than that. A good writer embeds the story in a rich context of feelings, emotions, and imagery, and it is those that really convey messages and affect the reader.

    Sure -- but the reader reads their own thing too (see Potter, Harry) making what the writer wished to convey , sometimes moot. The summary is not the book and most people reading the summary are aware of that distinction.
    @Tethys @5

    The more AI I see, the more I’m convinced it’s a pointless, wasteful, tech- bro dream.

    Summarization is actually a good use case of AI. The NLP capabilities are quite decent and can be compared to say a B- student and getting better. This does not however change the fact that a lot of AI is a pointless wasteful tech-bro (wet)dream.

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