There seems to be a considerable amount of interest in book summary services lately. Recently, there were several articles in The Observer on the subject of fiction summaries, one written from the point of view of the merchant (here) and another from the consumer’s (here).
While the avid reader in me can’t quite wrap my head around fiction summaries (at least in a non-academic setting), summaries of non-fiction are another thing altogether. I have an extensive non-fiction to-be-read list, one that includes many titles on business and marketing as well as a long list of favorite hobby topics (archaelogy, anthropology, history, linguistics, etc.).
I discovered an an interesting piece written by industry analyst Joe Wikert about Blinkist, a service that offers non-fiction book summaries which are called blinks. The service sounded interesting, and thinking of my long TBR list of non-fiction books, I decided to give it a try, concentrating on looking at the service from the point of view of a reader.
The Blinkist website promotes a read everywhere experience. There are apps for iPad, iPhone and Android and you can also read on the web. The service offers a three day, free, full-featured trial that starts when you sign up. The available books are drawn from a wide variety of topics: time management, psychology, finance, management, marketing, history, biography and more. There is mix of new and classic material and there were many titles published as recently as 2015.
The Blinkist service offers three tiers of membership:
- Free – Labeled as “A nibble of knowledge,” the free tier lets users read one pre-selected book a day and browse the Discover category.
- Plus – This tier has the tagline “Limitless learning” and costs$49.99 per year. According to the website, the price includes your choice of 500-1000+ books (40 new books added per month), with the ability to highlight and store “important snippets.” At this tier, you can read your entire library of blinks offline.
- Premium – This tier is described as “The Swiss Army knife edition.” For $79.99 per year, this level includes everything from the Plus level, plus the ability to listen to books in audio.You can also sync and store notes in Evernote and send books to your Kindle.
Signing up was easy. A confirmation email and a quick download of the app and I was up and running on the service. In order to try a variety of titles, I downloaded 8 blinks into my library for my free trial. I actually only got through five of them. Because I was mainly concerned with evaluating the quality of the summaries, I really didn’t get to try any of the other features (highlighting, listening to audio, and sending to Kindle) during my short free trial.
The only summary that I thought was truly fantastic was that of Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 classic, Leviathan. The blink was a cogent, concise synopsis of an important definitive work that can be extremely challenging to read in its entirely. You can have a look at the original at Project Gutenberg.
I was also quite happy with the summary of Jeff Jarvis’ Gutenberg the Geek. Since the original is a Kindle Single that is only 20 pages long, this summary felt very complete. I didn’t feel that I was missing anything by reading the summary instead of the whole work.
My feelings were more mixed on Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug. The summary was concise and I got some good helpful information from it. However, as a short rendering of a 216 page book, I felt that the there was a lot more that I could have learned if I had read the entire book instead of just key points.
I also read three other blinks during my free trial. For those three books, I really felt that the Blink format simply did not do the books justice.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari felt especially lacking. It was so painfully obvious how much of the 469 page original had (of necessity) been glossed over to make the material fit the format limits. While the blink was a totally inadequate substitute for the actual book, it did do a great job of convincing me that this was a book I definitely wanted to read.
Because I had previous knowledge of the topics, I also found that the blinks for Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us by Kabir Sehgal and Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone were not detailed enough. They might have been fine as an introductory article on the subject matter, but definitely would not be satisfying for anyone who has any familiarity with or deep interest in the subject.
After I read each of the titles listed above, I went to each book’s respective Amazon page and looked at the reviews and sample content. What I saw there confirmed my initial opinions on the blinks I read.
After my too-short free trial, I was only able to access the free tier’s features and only able to read one blink a day. The daily blink cannot be added to your library, nor can you highlight or copy quotes. Blinkist does send out a summary email once a week with a list of the upcoming books for the week. They also highlight one blink they feel is a must read.
So, my impressions after using the service for two weeks?
- The free trial was too short for me. While I understand that these are very short pieces and they don’t want to give away a lot for free, I really needed more time to evaluate the quality of the material on the service.
- If you like to tackle a subject in-depth, these summaries may be not be satisfying enough for you. Of the six have I have read so far, I found three of them insufficient for my tastes that admittedly lean toward deep-reading. However, if you are looking for a basic familiarity with the contents of a work for a book club or cocktail party conversation, these abbreviated versions may be perfect for you.
- In my opinion, both the Plus and Premium tiers are too expensive. $49.99 a year is a lot for short summaries that are more like articles than books. The additional cost for Premium seems awfully high for only the added features of audio, syncing to Evernote and sending to Kindle.
- There is no monthly payment option available.
Several of the blinks did spark my interest enough to cause me to seek out reviews and more info about some of the titles, although that is not actually an argument for subscribing to the paid service. I normally don’t pay for book recommendations; there are too many free blogs and newsletters for that. The bottom line is, compared to the cost of a subscription to an all-you-can-read service like Scribd, Oyster or Kindle Unlimited that allow you to read and unlimited number of entire books, Blinkist seems to offer too little for too expensive a price tag.
So, what about you? Have you tried Blinkist or any of the other summary services? What do you think? Is it something you would want to use? Let me know in the comments!