Some things take time – that’s just the way it is. Want to be an expert at playing the piano? Want to build a National-level championship-winning physique? Want to learn to cook like the head chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant? Want to get a PhD in aerospace engineering? For any of those things – and perhaps thousands of others – there are no shortcuts. You need to put in the time, the effort, the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. There’s no other way.
On that note, what about reading a 1,000-page book? Or rather more specifically, a 1,000-page non-fiction book? It could be a book on politics, history, psychology, economics or religion. To gain an in-depth understanding of what the author has attempted to convey over a thousand pages, does one need to actually sit down and read every one of those pages, or could there be another way? Personally, I’d say you have to make that effort, you have to read every bit of it – there’s no other way. But clearly, some others believe there might indeed be a short cut.
Websites that offer book summaries, in various formats, for works of non-fiction. Heard of those? For those who want to access the ‘knowledge’ buried deep inside thousands of pages in hundreds of non-fiction books, but don’t have the time or the inclination to spend months and years poring over tomes borrowed from a library, there are many websites that claim to offer an easier path. These websites offer book summaries (for the most part, non-fiction only), distilling authors’ key thoughts and ideas in easily digestible formats that one can ‘consume’ in as little as 10-15 minutes.
‘Whoa! Hold on for a second! Is this even legal?’ you might ask. Well, yes, there might be some controversy around this. A few book summary websites work with book publishers and audiobook/podcast creators, and legally secure the right to provide summaries. Some others, however, may or may not – there are shades of grey here. Blinkist, one of the leading websites in the book summaries space, says on its website that they “distill the main ideas and most important concepts from non-fiction books, but they are new, original works [referred to as ‘Blinks’ that are produced by Blinkist] of their own, written in our Blinkist style, voice, and format.” Plagiarism? May or may not be – I’m not 100% sure. The law says that facts, ideas, theories and concepts cannot be copyrighted. What does that effectively mean? For non-fiction books, it could mean that thoughts and ideas expressed in those books can be reworded, summarised and sold by book summary websites without the latter having broken any laws. Doesn’t sound right to me, but that’s the way it works.
What about the loss of revenue for writers and authors of original pieces of work, which get summarised and sold on these websites? Blinkist, for one, says “We work with publishing partners to select the most compelling ideas to blink, introducing customers to new books and authors they might otherwise miss. We also share revenue with those partners, so that they – and authors – can benefit financially from our engaged customers.” They also say that “by giving people an easy way to discover new knowledge, Blinkist will bring authors more readers and get more great books noticed and read – increasing authors’ income along the way.” Now, whether or not readers, after reading a book’s summary, will then go out and buy the original, full-length book is anybody’s guess.
In any case, let’s take a quick look at a few of these book summary websites and see what they have to say for themselves, and what’s the value they offer.
What they say: ‘Powerful ideas – 15 minutes at a time. More knowledge in less time. Perfect for curious people who love to learn, busy people who don’t have time to read and even people who aren’t into reading.’
What they offer: Book summaries in text and audio formats, and also podcast summaries. They currently have more than 6,500 non-fiction books and podcasts on offer, with which they say you can “feed your brain” while driving, commuting, walking or doing housework. There are a host of books you can choose from, including books on entrepreneurship, politics, sales & marketing, health & nutrition, history, economics, money & investments, biographies and a dozen other categories. There are trending topics, popular titles, curated lists and curated collections, all of which might help you choose the book summaries you wish to read.
Pricing: Blinkist offers a 7-day free trial that offers full, unrestricted functionality, after which you have to buy either an annual plan for Rs 2,999 or a monthly plan for Rs 499 a month. Both plans offer full access to all Blinkist content.
What I think: I signed up for a free trial and tried reading a few blinks (you can also listen to audio versions if you like), but did not really enjoy any. The summaries read like somebody’s interpretation of the original, which of course they are. In some cases, the ‘tone’ used is akin to that of an adult narrating a story to a child. Most summaries are a bit flat, mostly devoid of flavour, nuance, context and depth. In the end, if you’re lucky, you might possibly gain some idea of what the author of the original, full-length book wanted to say, but the experience is most certainly not even remotely comparable to reading the actual book. If the book itself was a plateful of flavourful, aromatic biryani, the summary would be a mere list of the biryani’s ingredients and a maybe a description of the cooking method used. So, what would you prefer?
What they say: ‘Know better. Do better. Get the key ideas from the world’s best books, podcasts, articles and more. By providing easy access to summarised expert knowledge, GetAbstract helps organisations and individuals worldwide use knowledge efficiently,’ they claim.
What they offer: Content is offered in various languages, including English, German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian and Chinese. You can choose book summaries (which you can read or listen to) on various topics, which include leadership, management, workplace skills, diversity, inclusion, personal development, mindfulness, upskilling and many others. There are featured channels, editor’s picks, and recommendations based on your interests. ‘With 25,000+ summaries, we are the most comprehensive library of compressed knowledge,’ they say.
Pricing: There is a 3-day free trial, after which you’ll need to buy an annual plan for $299 or a monthly plan for $29.90 a month. There are also other plans for students and organisations. There doesn’t seem to be an option for paying in INR.
What I think: They do seem to have the biggest collection of book summaries. Researchers, students, academicians and other professionals who need to access specific knowledge might find the site useful.
What they say: ‘Way more than book summaries. Shortform has the world’s best guides to 1,000+ non-fiction books. Lean key points and gain insights you won’t find anywhere else. Understand the world’s best ideas.’
What they offer: ‘Our mission is to spread the world’s best ideas,’ they claim. You can choose book summaries from various categories, including business, entrepreneurship, productivity, careers, management & leadership, health and others. Their collection certainly isn’t as comprehensive as what’s offered by some others in this space, but they do claim to add 20 new book summaries a month. Shortform also offers exercises that have been designed to help you apply what you learn from their summaries.
Pricing: There is a 5-day free trial, after which you can buy an annual plan for $197 or a monthly plan for $24 a month. There doesn’t seem to be an option for paying in INR.
What I think: There seem to be better options around and this one doesn’t look particularly useful.
What they say: ‘Stay Curious. Enjoy access to bestselling book summaries and premium content from our partners, all available in 15-minute audio or text segments.’ The site encourages you to get smarter (‘Instantly unlock the knowledge contained in the world’s best books.’) and find inspiration (‘Get the best ideas from leading business mavericks, health gurus, political pundits, and trailblazing scientists.’)
What they offer: Book summaries in text and audio formats. Thousands of titles, across categories like business & economics, politics, social sciences, self-help, history, health & fitness, sports and many others.
Pricing: There is a 7-day free trial, after which you’ll need to buy monthly access at $9 a month, or an annual plan for $90 or lifetime access for a one-time payment of $300. There doesn’t seem to be an option for paying in INR.
What I think: Other book summary websites seem to be a bit better than this one.
What they say: ‘Powerful ideas for personal and business development. See an entire book on one page. Learn on-the-go, anytime, anywhere. We summarize top business and personal development books for entrepreneurs, leaders and professionals.’
What they offer: In addition to text-based 10-15 page book summaries and 20-minute audio summaries, ReadingGraphics also offers 1-page infographic summaries, which are a bit simplistic but still, perhaps, interesting. You can choose from various categories – most of them being similar to what’s offered by other sites. The usual suspects are all there: business, entrepreneurship, finance, wealth, management, psychology, technology, sales & marketing, and a few others. Their overall collection is, for now, a bit small compared to some of the others – more than 200 titles, with 36 new summaries being added every year.
Pricing: Subscription plans include an annual plan for $170, a 10-year plan for $697 or a monthly plan for $20 a month.
What I think: The smallest collection of summaries but their infographics may be interesting/useful for some.
While the above is not a comprehensive list of book summary websites, the ones I’ve mentioned here should be enough to give you a good idea of what these sites offer and, by taking up their free trial offer, you can see whether or not book summaries work for you. Personally, I’m not too sure about just how useful these might be. Maybe in some specific cases, for specific individuals. Students preparing for an exam. Professionals working on a specific report or presentation. Academicians working on writing a paper. And other similar cases.
However, for people like me who read for pleasure – who savour the experience of reading a well-written book at their own pace – book summary websites are not very useful. Summarised content can be cold, clinical, and devoid of flavour. It’s purely functional, purely transactional. Reading book summaries instead of full-length books seems, to me, a bit like foregoing wholesome, nutritious, real food and choosing to live on vitamins, protein powder and miscellaneous food supplements – pills and powders that come from a factory rather than food that comes from a farm. Might work for some but it’s definitely not for everybody.
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