• Every few days, I get an ad on social media asking me to join 19 million other people in a ‘learning revolution’. (Moment RF)Source: Moment RF
Far from just entertaining us or giving us the main facts, books read in their entirety will teach us far more than clever, 15-minute summaries.
By
Caroline Zielinski

16 Jun 2021 - 8:34 AM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2021 - 9:29 AM

Every few days, I get an ad on social media asking me to join 19 million other people in a ‘learning revolution’. I’m talking about ‘Blinkist', a reading app that summarises books into 15-minute ‘blinks’ by giving you a top down view of a book.  Or, as their tagline says, ’big ideas in small packages’. 

The premise sounds interesting to those with busy lives, especially anyone who suffers from a bad case of tsundoku, or the affliction of buying books you never read. I was curious. Or at least curious enough to see whether 15 minutes would be enough to make me feel like I got everything I wanted to get out of a work that an author took months -sometimes years - to write. 

To read a book is to journey into the unknown. As I’ve learnt, even seemingly 'vapid' books can often yield the greatest of wisdom; whether it’s an insight found in a chapter, a paragraph or even a sentence - it can inspire unexpected introspection, make us see others differently and even help us make decisions about our own lives. 

To read a book is to journey into the unknown.

Books inspire creativity and the evolution of new ideas - not always with tables, facts and summaries - and I fear that by ‘hacking’ our way through books (and reading lists) we are losing the nuance and intangibility of life that is often best communicated through prose. 

Johan Norberg, the author of Open: The Story of Human Progress, has a beautiful paragraph amongst all the economics that I worry would be missed by Blinkist, but which spoke deeply to me. 

When speaking about how waves of migration inspired great innovation and cultural and religious openness (which in turn made the receiving country, such us the US in the years before WW2, prosperous and more educated) he writes that “literacy turned the lives and travails of people in faraway lands into a part of every-day life. And it has been argued that fiction, especially after the mid-17th century, was even more important” 

It should be noted that there are no fiction titles on Blinkist. To the app’s credit, or detriment - perhaps both - it doesn’t attempt to summarise the rich fictive experience in 15-minute blocks.   

It should be noted that there are no fiction titles on Blinkist. To the app’s credit, or detriment - perhaps both - it doesn’t attempt to summarise the rich fictive experience in 15-minute blocks.   

“Novels and plays told from the perspective of children, women and ethnic minorities made readers laugh and cry with them, and realise that people of another gender, class or ethnicity we’re individuals just like them, with the same senses, affections and passions,” writes Norberg,“If we prick them, they also bleed; if we tickle them, they also laugh”.

Far from just entertaining us or giving us the main facts, books read in their entirety - by including dialogue, conversations and experiences of fictional characters from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds - will teach us far more about the rich fabric of human diversity than 10 to 15-minutes summaries of Edward Said’s Orientalism or Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

One example is the epic quartet series, the Neapolitan Novels, where Italian author Elena Ferrante depicts the poverty of 1950s Naples with such acute feeling that I remember being transported there, right into the gritty streets, with her two main characters Elena and her enigmatic childhood friend Lila. I was shocked to learn about the embedded violence in every gesture, thought and behaviour of the male - and female - characters, and shocked at the tacit acceptance of the severe gender inequality.

At the same time, it made me want to travel there, to walk the streets the girls and their friends did, to experience the smells and sights and hear the locals chat among themselves in dialect. These fictional accounts gave me more insight into the beating heart of Naples than any travel guide ever could, and allowed me to travel into the depths of a society that has been romanticised and reimagined through the primary lens of art and food cultures. 

Another book which challenged my ‘way of seeing’ is US cultural critic and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom's Thick, a collection of essays which explores a range of topics from the treatment of Black women by healthcare professionals to Trump rallies, LinkedIn and the presence of Black writers in left-wing media.  

Beyond her astute observations, it was Cottom’s take on beauty which really gave me pause. Cottom asserts that beauty is a white and capitalist construction that is inherently inaccessible to non-white people. She refers to herself as “the antithesis of beauty”, which, to white people, is taken as self-loathing, but to Cottom, it is “naming what has been done to [her]”.  

“When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalising the dominant culture’s assessment of me,” she writes, “I am naming what has been done to me. And signalling who did it.” 

If this were a summary on Blinkist, I doubt the nuances of Cottom’s complex social constructions would have been picked up.

If this were a summary on Blinkist, I doubt the nuances of Cottom’s complex social constructions would have been picked up. Reading summaries, while useful when we want to rehash certain points or remember a book we read long ago, does not capture the depth and emotions present in prose, and the insight that comes with reading something unexpected. 

Human beings have bonded and grown through story-telling for thousands of years: without its flourishes, experimentation and imagination, we are poorer for it. And after my brief experiment, I intend to be faithful to that tradition - efficiency be damned. 

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