Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

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.


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?

A Basket of Books

As a kid, I brought home library books by the laundry-basket-full. My books-per-week rate has gone down substantially as other responsibilities have grown, but I still love reading.

My current “basket” is relatively small, though it holds more than the books below. A few of the books I’m currently excited about/intrigued by:

  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregerson. I’m several chapters in. Interesting discussion of the power, uses, and abuses of questions.
  • The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker. This was a magical book when I first read it 20(ish) years ago; it still is, partway through my current re-read. Drucker was a prophet of business, lucidly describing the effective “knowledge worker” long before most others. Actually, his whole corpus is wonderful. Also pick up The Daily Drucker for a daily, one-page nugget of (frequently) transformative thought.
  • Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein,  is a book I haven’t yet read, hadn’t even heard of till recently, but am very excited about starting soon. It sounds like he interacts with a lot of other interesting ideas: Gladwell/Coyle/Syed/Dweck on the development of talent and growth mindset, the tension between “deep dive” and “broad survey” approaches to knowledge (and the magic that happens at the intersections of fields), and in general, something approaching the “latticework of mental models” that Charlie Munger uses for evaluation of ideas through diverse frameworks. (See Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street, or a simple Google search for more on Munger and models.)
  • The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality I’m barely past the introduction. My initial sense is that it will be an interesting, and non-simplistic, examination of how economic growth moves the “average” upward, how it causes inequality…and how inequality can, in turn, contribute to economic growth. The author starts with a story of his father’s “great escape” from mining…and a reflection on the many in similar circumstances whom his father’s “escape” left behind, then uses this as an example of the many “escapes” that happen. I’m looking forward to seeing how the author interacts with the ethics of the issues.

Other books will wait for another day.

The Two Best Horror Stories I Ever Read

The idea of horror has always captured my imagination much more than have actual attempts to use it in art. Most, it seems, appeal to gore, physical pain, weird supernatural stuff–it seems my definition of horror simply differs from that which most use, and others’ approach to it usually repulses me.

Real horror, I think, relates to surprise, and to awe. To the gradual (or sometimes sudden) realization that the world is not what it at first seems, and to the awareness of how little we understand of that world, and of ourselves. The best horror, it seems, is the truest–not about the psychotic killer, the ancient vengeful spirit, or the monster under the bed, but about the monster in your head,  in the society around you, or both. The best horror isn’t effective because the author pulls you into a world of fantasy–it’s effective because the author reaches into your world. Because she grants you a glimpse into the terrifying corners of your own psyche, or reveals for a moment the darkness that your community usually manages to ignore.

The two best horror stories I’ve yet read are both fairly short. M. Rickert’s Bread and Bombs is a relatively recent one, and published online with the author’s permission. Shirley Jackson’s story The Lottery was published a few decades ago, and is available in various collections as well as in probably-copyright-violating online copies. Both are well worth reading.

Book: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

I just finished a wonderful book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley–a book on education with endorsements from both Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten! Ripley tells a good story both fun to read and meaningful, pursuing a question: why do kids in some education systems rock in international academic comparisons, while others (such as the USA)…well…don’t? In chasing her answer, she follows several American exchange students to Finland, Korea, and Poland, exploring the people and environments (schools, friends, teachers, education leaders) surrounding them both in their exchange countries and in the US.

Ripley offers some thoughts, extrapolating from this anecdotal exploration, that resonate. The common thread in top-achieving countries is high expectations for students, a.k.a. “rigor”. Several of the ideas Ripley explores, especially in fleshing out what “rigor” means in practice:

  • A high-school graduation test that really means something for a person’s future.
  • Uniform expectations of student performance, at least up to a certain level. Especially in the Finnish system, language or family weaknesses or learning difficulties are generally met with extra support in meeting the universal expectations, rather than with lower expectations–a substantial contrast with the U.S. system.
  • High expectations of teachers, with high autonomy, respect, and effectiveness as a consequence. Finland sets a really high standard for who gets to become a teacher, and they’re quite effective. The country’s system went through a fairly painful transition to emphasizing rigor in education and selection of teachers, with a lot of stipulations about how to teach. As the value of rigor became entrenched for both students and the educational system, though, policy moved toward giving a lot of autonomy, though with accountability for outcomes. Interestingly, there’s also a fair amount of autonomy given to kids (esp. high-school kids, in this book) for figuring out how to use their time responsibly. The basic academic expectations make a difference.
  • South Korea offers a different example as described in her book, of students who study at sub-par schools from 8 AM to till late evening, and then go to private tuition until 10 for “real” study. The market forces a fairly high level of effectiveness and customer service on the private teachers–but in a way that’s both inefficient and inequitable for society overall.
  • Letting kids fail early, in school where the stakes are low, is a lot kinder than letting them fail later, when they can’t get a manufacturing job because it requires substantial thinking and communication skills that they haven’t learned.
  • Most of the kinds of ways American parents get involved with schools don’t improve educational outcomes. The ways parents can make a difference at school? Read to your young kids, “coach” your kids with warmth and firmness. (See also Brain Rules for Baby for more on the “warm and firm/strict” parenting style, the most “successful” among styles.)
  • And, surely this isn’t news–but tying sports with schools harms education. It’s not that sports are bad, and physical activity is certainly good. It’s just that sports programs add a priority to schools that’s completely unrelated to academics, divert energy and finances, and make it more unlikely that a school system will excel in preparing its kids for life.
  • Common Core is one effort to limit the “system loss” in kids’ learning as kids move from place to place or from teacher to teacher–e.g., if you know every kid in your class has learned fractions, there’s no need to cover them again for those who haven’t, boring and wasting the time of the many kids who’ve covered them several times already! Multiply this by many times for many subjects, and you have a substantial contributor to the weakness of American schools.

As a homeschooled kid who had a great experience*, I’d encourage my friends to consider homeschooling their own kids, especially if they value education. In fact, it seems as though intentional homeschooling can offer one, particularly intensive, way for parents to be “involved in education” in the very ways that Ripley identifies as beneficial. But on a national level, I’m quite aware of the importance of a thriving public (or otherwise broadly accessible) school system, both for national competitiveness and for social equity. I would be thrilled to see both the country of my birth and the country of my residence learn from successful systems around the world–a movement that does involve changes at the top, but also involves a lot of awareness at the grassroots.

Read the book. It’s an engaging, “human” read, and thought-provoking. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

* Re. “a great experience”, it wasn’t just that it was nice. It was. I have great memories of reading book upon book upon book for pleasure, of opening the hydrant out back and digging out “river systems”, of various other encounters with “real life” when other kids were sitting in school. But from quite early on, I can’t ever recall testing below the 99th percentile in standardized tests. That had its own cost in inviting a fixed mindset, but I don’t think I have any reason to be embarrassed by the academic excellence of my education at home through elementary and high school.

Audible kids’ sale: ages 8-10

Some interesting books from Audible’s sale through 27 Nov 2017 on hundreds of children’s audiobooks–this time for kids 8-10 years old. (A similar post for kids 5-7 is here.) It’s primarily highlighting some interesting books for my friends; your mileage may vary. Likely omitting many great books, and including some garbage.

  • Gaiman’s Coraline. Creepy/surreal fantasy.
  • American Girl books. From what I’ve hard, some good lessons for kids. Also perhaps leaning fairly white/Euro.
  • Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatrez vs. the Evil Librarians books. I love most of Sanderson’s work, but have never felt that much interest in these.
  • Amos Fortune, Free Man.
  • Anastasia Krupnik
  • L. M. Montgomery. I have a Y chromosome. I liked Montgomery’s Anne books and the related ones. You have a problem with that?
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Church culture meets the kids who actually find the stuff worth finding.
  • Birmingham, 1963. Reluctant to get this in audiobook; seems almost certain to be much better in print.
  • Bridge to Terabithia
  • Brighty of the Grand Canyon
  • Caddie Woodlawn
  • “Chasing Freedom: The Life Journeys of Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony, Inspired by Historical Facts”. Pleasant, short-ish intro to two remarkable women and their places in history.
  • Crispin books by Avi. These look like intriguing stories–though I’ll probably pursue them in print when the girls are a bit older.
  • Crow Call by Lois Lowry
  • The Door in the Wall
  • Eight Cousins / Louisa May Alcott
  • Esperanza Rising – Mexican workers/California/Great Depression
  • Louise Erdrich / The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence. The first two of a four-book sequence featuring a young Ojibwe girl. The other side of the Little House on the Prairie era.
  • Jean Craighead George. Just get these. Julie of the Wolves, Julie’s Wolf Pack, My Side of the Mountain. I have fond memories of George’s books. As I recall, my young perceptions were that she doesn’t shy away from tension or sadness (especially in the Julie books)–but writes wonderfully.
  • The Magician’s Nephew / C. S. Lewis
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Nostalgic memories of this book.
  • My Life With The Chimpanzees / Jane Goodall.
  • Never Forgotten, of a kidnapped boy sold as a slave, looks good…but I suspect much better in print.
  • Passage to Freedom/Baseball Saved Us – Japanese kids in American internment camps learn to play baseball; a Japanese ambassador disobeys orders to save Jewish lives in 1940 Lithuania.
  • Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes.
  • A Girl Named Disaster – intriguing-looking Zimbabwe/Mozambique story
  • Rascal, by Sterling North. Wonderful classic.
  • Rifles for Watie. US civil war hist. fiction.
  • Sarah, Plain and Tall. Classic.
  • Sea Star / Marguerite Henry. One of her many horse stories; her most well-known is Misty of Chincoteague.
  • The Skeleton Tree – two kids have to work together to survive in the Alaskan wilderness.
  • Sounder. Sad, but classic for good reason.
  • Stella by Starlight. Racism themes.
  • Strawberry Girl / Lenski
  • Sugar / Jewell Parker Rhodes. Looks interesting, though I’m unfamiliar w/ the author. African-American girl on sugar plantation finds herself intrigued by Chinese workers there.
  • Treasures of the Snow / Patricia St. John. Tale of forgiveness.
  • Unbound: a family flees slavery to freedom in the Dismal Swamp. A “novel in verse”. Looks interesting.
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963: looks like an interesting book. Per the blurb and reviews–lots of humor…and the Birmingham 1963 bombing.
  • “Who Was…” series. Biographies are a lovely approach to history.

Chromebook School: Reading

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul.

by Emily Dickinson

I learned to read when I was 3. I’m pretty sure that, in those ancient days of the 1980s, digital apps didn’t play a significant role in that adventure. As with a lot of things, digital tools aren’t essential; they may even sometimes be detrimental. But they can also be quite helpful–I’ve spent the last few days in a state of amazement at the power that’s available, just waiting to be unlocked, in digital tools. As with some of the other “Chromebook School” subject-specific posts, this one will evolve.

Starting to Read

  • First, an offline resource: the book Doodling Dragons (introducing single-letter phonemes), from Logic of English, has been a read-aloud from early in our family’s life. I think this made a big difference, especially for our eldest daughter, in reading readiness.
  • Our eldest daughter learned to read primarily through Reading Eggs (AUD 80/yr), associated with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She’s currently on lesson 100 of the 120-lesson core, but already spends hours a day with her nose buried in a book. She enjoyed trying Reading Eggs on occasion, but at about age 3 and a half was when she first enjoyed the program and “got it”. We haven’t pushed her, but she quickly progressed from there. Reading Eggs includes a library of digital (and some print, if you want to buy them) “books” for kids to read, printable worksheets, if desired, and offers spelling and a more advanced reading program as well. They recently introduced “Reading Eggs Junior”, intended to teach pre-reading skills to younger children. It needs some parental supervision, especially in the first number of lessons–but offers a lot of interest. One downside: it seems to lean fairly far in the direction of “scripted” vs. adaptive. If a child forgets a certain element, you’ll just need to go back and repeat the relevant lesson or forge ahead.
  • Our youngest daughter just began with Teach Your Monster to Read. Though she’s always enjoyed doing Reading Eggs, it often seemed the learning didn’t “stick”. TYMTR seems, thus far, to be doing much better at adapting and helping her review.

Reading Practice

  • LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary  (USD 40/yr, ages 2-9) includes a lot of children’s books (all with read-aloud option) and mini-“field trip” videos.
  • (USD 8/mo, ages 0-12) offers a wonderful-looking selection of books and audiobooks.
  • Newsela (free at basic level) is a terrific site that re-writes news articles each at a number of different reading levels for grades 2-6, then quizzes for comprehension and adjusts the default presentation level appropriately. Kids can browse, or (parent-)teachers can assign articles.
  • (free) provides student-targeted articles as well for K-12, leveled and with a lot of scaffolding to support reading and learning.
  • News-O-Matic (USD 4/mo) is an app (also available on iOS) I came across while looking for general child-oriented articles to read aloud at the supper table. I think it will be useful for that, but also for the kids to directly read and explore as they get a little older.
  • Readorium (USD 120/year, grades 3-8) looks like a brilliant idea. It’s a library of science books, with content written at multiple levels (like Newsela), lots of support to support comprehension and develop both reading skills and scientific knowledge.
  • The various Ranger Rick magazines are available digitally (USD??) and in print–I have fond memories of them as a kid.

To be continued…

This list will continue to evolve. In the meantime, what do you use to support your kids’ reading? (Besides, of course, the obvious–shelves stuffed with lovely, wonderful paper books, and reading to your kids!)


Audible kids’ sale: 5-7

So, Audible has a sale through 27 Nov 2017 on hundreds of children’s audiobooks. Below, find a list of books that caught my eye in the Ages 5-7 category. There’re many other great ones, I’m sure, and I’ve varying levels of interest in the ones listed. And I’m not taking the time to linkify them. Frankly, this list covers a lot of the books in the sale! One of the caveats with books for this age–many such books include great illustrations, which obviously aren’t included in an audiobook. I’ve left some books off the list just because they lose too much in this medium. Also…while I love the audiobook medium in part because of the scope it gives voice actors to enrich the experience, I also want my kids to get a lot of practice in reading, with the joy of reading enjoyable texts as an intrinsic motivation!

The list:

  • A Child’s History of the World – recommended by others, haven’t yet read/listened. An older perspective, I’m assuming with positives and negatives.
  • Ada Twist, Scientist. I’m always looking for STEM/girls books. The loss of pictures is a substantial loss.
  • Aesop’s Fables – self-explanatory.
  • Rabbit Ears books – stories from many different cultures. Gold.
  • A Bear Called Paddington – classic kids’ book
  • The Black Stallion – classic.
  • Brave Girl – child worker protests treatment of workers in early-20th-century New York. Power to the people!
  • Cam Jansen stories – kids’ mysteries (fun if I remember correctly) starring a kid with a photographic memory.
  • Hank the Cowdog stories – fun stories about a full-of-himself farm dog.
  • Catwings series by Ursula K. Le Guin. A matriarch of fantasy. Not sure if I’ve read more than her Earthsea series.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Classic.
  • A Child’s Garden of Verses. Innocent verses by Stephenson.
  • Clementine books – looks like a fun exploration of a school-age girl’s life.
  • The Courage of Sarah Noble – A classic–but I don’t remember much about it.
  • Happy Little Family (and other books in series) by Rebecca Caudill. Looks like an innocent older book about a bygone era.
  • Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary. I have good memories of reading Cleary books as a kid. I’ve recently seen criticism of them as fairly misogynous and encouraging obnoxious behavior–this doesn’t surprise me a lot, but I’d have to re-sample.
  • The Hen Who Wouldn’t Give Up – perhaps a good growth-mindset read.
  • I Could Do That! Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote – Girl power FTW! A little trepidation–it sounds as though the illustrations are a big part of this book.
  • Hurricanes! Again–illustrations?
  • Johnny Appleseed
  • Various books by Jean Fritz. Well-told bios, probably well-infused with American mythology.
  • Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [illustrations?]
  • Lincoln And Douglass An American Friendship [illustrations?]
  • The Matchlock Gun – Revolutionary War hist. fiction
  • On Sand Island [illustrations?] – values hard work, goal pursuit, cooperation. A boy builds a boat.
  • Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Illustrations add a lot to this book. Lovely story of a girl with leukemia from the atomic bombings of Japan. Sweet but sad.
  • Scaredy Squirrel – growth mindset, anxiety
  • Jesus Storybook Bible – great children’s bible that weaves together a narrative. Not the moralistic or the fragmented approach that many take.
  • The Story for Children – a storybook bible
  • The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit – apparently “translated” into a contemporary context. If I understand correctly, this may be less likely than some versions to evoke !?!?!? reactions on race perspectives than other versions–but do your own investigation.
  • Treasury of Egyptian Mythology. Yum.
  • The War with Grandpa. Looks like fun.
  • Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message. A shame to miss out on the illustrations, but audiobook reviews are good.

Ten Years In The Tub

Farnam Street reviewed Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books. I haven’t read it yet, but definitely will–just read this paragraph cited in FS’s review!

Francis Wheen’s book and Paul Collins’ Not Even Wrong were advance reading copies that arrived through the post. I’m never going to complain about receiving free early copies of books, because quite clearly there’s nothing to complain about, but it does introduce a rogue element into one’s otherwise carefully plotted reading schedule. I had no idea I wanted to read Wheen’s book until it arrived, and it was because of Wheen that I read Lewis, and then Not Even Wrong turned up and I wanted to read that too, and Buchan’s Greenmantle got put to one side, I suspect forever. Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have the agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path. 

I already know I like the guy. Check out Farnam Street for the full review.

Mini-review: Bounce, by Matthew Syed

I just finished reading Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed. Syed is a journalist and a several-time Olympic competitor in table tennis. In this book, he makes a great case that practice is what builds skill, with “talent” or “aptitude” often being mostly fiction. I recommend the book–the content is valuable, and it’s an enjoyable read.

Syed offers a number of interesting case studies. A few among them:

  • His own experience–in retrospect, he wasn’t exceptionally talented, but had the right opportunities for a lot of coaching and practice.
  • “Clusters” of elite runners–determined not by genetics, but by environment and experience.
  • An educational psychologist who set out to prove that training, not talent, determines chess skill. Before he was even married, he proposed to train his children to elite levels of skill. Two of his daughters held the top two rankings of female chess players in the world.

Syed also offers some other great nuggets. Among them, he looks into why high-level athletes “choke”, apparently losing all ability to play, and why athletic skill isn’t necessarily transferable across sports. In a great anecdote, he describes deploying his table-tennis reaction times against a tennis player’s famous high-speed serve. The results…well…didn’t convince him to switch sports.

Bounce echoes themes of psychologist Carol Dweck’s research, much of which is presented in her book Mindset. I highly recommend Dweck’s book as well (despite a fair amount of “fluff”), both for personal growth and parenting. I expect there’s also a fair amount of overlap with Geoff Colvin’s The Talent Code, but haven’t yet read Colvin’s book.