Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries

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Are book-summary services valuable innovation, or valueless semblance of knowledge?

I don’t know the answer. I do, though, have several thoughts.

Against: they’re abominations!

  • My instinct: they’re extreme abridgements, and can’t help but do violence to an author’s message. Shane Parrish, a gent I highly respect, describes book summaries as being put together by 22-year-olds who don’t have your life experience, insight, or context–and as really not useful.
  • They build an appetite for “snacking” rather than for thoughtful engagement. Even if they accurately represent the content, the work of reading is part of actual absorbing what you read in a meaningful way.
  • They kill the aesthetic in favor of the utilitarian.
  • They make you, and others, think you know more than you actually know, offering a shallow appearance of knowledge or wisdom rather than the real thing.
  • More than that, they let others seem more knowledgeable and wiser than they are! Grr!

For: they’re really useful!

  • All reading is skimming. I think that’s actually another insight I gained from Parrish. You’ll never read all the books out there. You might not even finish most books you start. Is it better to not encounter an idea at all, or to encounter it in possibly-distorted, possibly-oversimplified form?
  • Books are often way too wordy. Carol Dweck’s Mindset has a powerful idea, but struck me as stuffed full of fluff. Some other books bearing brilliant ideas have nonetheless been tortuous reads. Summaries get to the point!
  • A summary can be useful as a “preview” of a book, as a roadmap of the author’s ideas and the book’s structure.
  • A summary can be useful for a book you know you’ll never read.

And…

My gut reaction to summary services is abhorrence. And I just now downloaded a number of summaries, and also recently subscribed to a “summary-ish” service. I have getAbstract access through my membership in a professional association, and think I will find value in the summaries. I think there is value in them, in “tasting” books and ideas. But the idea of them is deeply prosaic, deeply “grey”, deeply…well, the medicine one must swallow, not the delightful confection one dreams of. And it’s really sad to have knowledge or insight as “medicine”, not the stuff of delight but the stuff of necessity.

I’m not going to gush over summary services, but I think they have a place, a useful role. And they feel like a desecration of the art of writing. Bah, humbug, and all that.

What are your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries”

  1. Good thoughts! The objections you list apply mostly to literature, right? Because then there are other books which, having little aesthetic value, seem actually reducible to their concepts, and those concepts can often be summarized effectively. Not every novel idea is worth a whole book, you guys…

    But yes, reading summaries of great literature in order to feel and appear literate is… multiple kinds of sad.

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    1. Actually, I was thinking mostly of nonfiction with the objections. “Summarizing” great literature may have a place as orientation to it, but certainly not in place of it. It’s simply an abomination in that case.

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  2. I just drafted a new post on words as footprints that may flesh out my thoughts on nonfiction. Re. literature, there’s even still some complexity. Perhaps translation/summary is a continuum of appropriateness? E.g., from a literary standpoint, are minor modifications to KJV language helpful or harmful? “Translations” of Shakespeare? Or then there’s Chaucer:
    “Go, litel boke, go, litel myn tragedye, Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye, So sende myght to make in som comedye! But litel book, no makyng thow n’envie, [5] But subgit be to alle poyesye, And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace. And for ther is so gret diversite In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge, [10] So prey I to God that non myswrite the, Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge; And red wherso thow be, or elles songe, That thow be understonde, God I biseche!”

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  3. Great comments! Useful perhaps, but gray and sad. I do love sampling — I’ve enjoyed podcast interviews of authors for that reason. You get to hear authors communicate their own book’s message in a 45 minute interview. Obviously it’s not the depth of reading the entire book, but at least it’s still the same person communicating the message rather than a third party summarization! 🙂

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