People Need to Consume More Books. Blinkist is not the Answer.

On the surface, Blinkist sounds like a pretty convenient platform. Their tagline, "Big ideas in small packages", sums up what they do pretty well– they take books and condense them down into 15-minute summaries. They tout their service as a way to enhance yourself and in an efficient way without all the work that comes with conventional reading, like sitting down and opening the book and focusing for more than a few minutes.

I'm a busy person. I get it. We all want to be able to move more books from our "to-read" list to our "have-read" lists. When being pulled between work, family, friends, side-hustles, hobbies, the gym, chores, and housework, I don't have the time to sit down and read as much as I would like. The books I want to read vastly outnumber the books that I have read, and I do often feel like I'll never get caught up.

So, you'd think that the Blinkest sales pitch would seem pretty optimal for me, right? Well, no. Not at all, actually. And it's not just me being a printed-media purist. While I will be among the first to argue that the experience of a printed book is grander than that of e-books and other mediums, it's not why I dislike services that offer you the content of books in a quick, synoptic format.

Instead, my problem is with all that you're not getting from a synopsis when compared to what you get from actually reading a book.

The Shallows: Your Brain is Being Pulled in Too Many Directions

I've referenced it several times on this blog, but if you've never read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, I recommend closing out of this blog and going to get your hands on a copy... subscribe before you leave so that you can come back here, though.

One of the central themes of Carr's book is that information overload is ultimately harming our brains and our abilities to focus on an individual task. He uses the example of the experience of reading a blog post, just like this one. Most websites have ads that break up what you're reading. There are links in sidebars and in the text that you can click on and follow. On your computer, you likely also have notifications from your email or social media platforms. That prompt to update that you've been dismissing for the last three months keeps dinging and intruding on the upper-righthand corner. Maybe you even have a YouTube video playing in the background for nothing more than ambient noise.

The result is that your attention is being diverted in multiple directions simultaneously. It's similar to running multiple devices on a WiFi router; if you're just doing a couple of basic tasks, you've got the bandwidth to do what you need to do. If you're trying to run several large programs, however, they're all going to be facing issues with lag and latency. Your brain is definitely a high-end router and has a lot of bandwidth to offer, but even a device as advanced and sophisticated as the human brain has its limits.

When you're multitasking or in an environment in which multiple stimuli can make attempts at your attention, it prevents you from being fully focused on any one task. As a result, your information retention is going to be lower than if you were focusing on just one task. At the same time, your rate of error– the frequency at which you're making mistakes– is going to be higher, and the speed at which you can process information is going to be slower.

The scary part of this is that we can condition our brains to operate this way– inefficient, slow, and error-prone– by inadvertently training ourselves to consistently split our attention. This can be as seemingly benign as always listening to music while we're working or doing homework. One thing that I am incredibly guilty of is having all of my work apps open while I'm writing. It's not uncommon for me to write a paragraph and then immediately click into Slack or my email to see what I've missed. These forays into day job territory quickly transition into checking Facebook or something similarly fruitless.

Just like when you go to the gym, if you always lift below your max-weight and haphazardly pick exercises based upon what you like, you may make some progress at first, but eventually, you're just going to plateau and never really move forward. By contrast, if you engage in targeted workouts that challenge you to consistently increase your max-weight, you're going to continually get stronger and see improvements in yourself. In the same way, if you get in a habit of focusing just enough to get by, you can absolutely get by, but you're not going to be operating in a flow state or surfacing the best of your abilities in your actions. If you train yourself to be focused and immersed in singular activities, however, you're going to be more likely to reach that flow state operating at peak performance.

Replacing books with quick soundbites you can read between activities or recordings you can listen to while doing something else is going to have a similar effect on your brain. Not only is your attention more likely to be split between multiple activities, but you also run the risk of conditioning yourself to seek out information in quick, small bursts or for your brain to want to multi-task while you are seeking out new information. As ideal as it may be to get the information you need quickly and succinctly, in addition to splitting up your focus, synoptic snapshots typically exclude one of the key components needed for comprehension and retention: context.

Why is context so important for learning and development?

When it comes to reading, context is a multi-faceted element. It can include everything from the author's background to the way that a sentence is phrased. Writing, while seemingly second nature to many of us, is an immensely complex act, especially in business, self-improvement, psychology, and other similar texts that are promoted on Blinkist. These are works that require a significant amount of research to get started, and the ideas that they present are typically wrapped up in the details of this research.

Books like this don't just say "X happens, therefore you should Y." Instead, they meticulously break down the underlying data used to reach these conclusions and then they tease out the implications. Quite often, they pair this informational analysis with a narrative so that the data is conveyed in a story format, which helps readers retain more information and to visualize what it looks like when a concept is applied to a real-life scenario.

By their very nature, synopses require paring out context for the sake of identifying and conveying key themes. In some situations, this can be helpful– such as if you're a project manager and need brief updates from members of your team on what they've accomplished, or if you have to give an "elevator pitch" to a friend or colleague about something you've read.

When it comes to improving your life or learning new skills, decontextualized synopses are vastly less helpful. At the very least, it's much easier to forget to apply information that is learned that way. In less harmless ways, it can also lead to misrepresented and misleading data. Unfortunately, we see this all the time in the news.

Consider the amount of times you've heard something along the lines of "New study shows that [...]" followed by some outlandish claim– new study shows that drinking one cup of coffee per day can extend your life; according to a recent study, drinking a modified bleach may be the key preventing cancer; according to science, first-born children are naturally smarter than their younger siblings. These are all great headlines because they make people want to share that quick factoid or because it makes them feel validated. What we see in the news, however, doesn't delve into what makes the results of these studies what they are; it doesn't tell us who conducted the study, what the testing methods were, and what the actual data looked like.

Trying to make decisions off of something that could be shoddy research or that is more nuanced than a synoptic overview can express can have terrible consequences. One striking headline about vaccines causing autism gets printed in 1998 and we're still dealing with the fallout 21 years later; there's a synopsis "result" of bad science that's being pushed as a fact and the context of the invalid research methods and the abundance of evidence to the contrary gets ignored. I think it'd be more scientifically sound to say that "bad research and poorly represented data causes the return of once nearly-eradicated diseases" than it is to say "vaccines cause autism."

(I'm not saying that reading summaries instead of the whole book will give you measles, but by golly, I am tempted to make that claim just to see if we can get some proof of concept going in regards to people haphazardly exclaiming that reading prevents measles).

While I do not believe that Blinkist and similar providers have any negative intentions– in fact, I think their intentions are quite good– I do think that anyone who uses these services as a replacement for books rather than a supplement is setting themselves up for having an incomplete understanding of the topics being discussed. It would require accepting the synopsis as truth rather than arriving at your own truths through the data and the context in which that data is provided.

Reading a full text– and creating space for you to focus on that text– allows you to reach your own conclusions about the information provided. As a result, your language skills and critical thinking skills are at work, strengthening them in the long run. You're also able to recondition your brain to be able to focus better on a singular task without the need for distraction or multitasking. Seeking out new information to enrich your life is paramount to the self-improvement process, but making meaningful advancements requires meaningful engagement, which you can't get through vastly condensed summary.

TL;DR or if you were too busy multitasking to pay close attention: reading a book= good, only reading or listening to summaries= meh.