When I was young and cynical, a friend and I came up with a plan to make reading easy. We called it litzak — Muzak for literature — and the idea was to boil down great books to a sentence each. “Moby-Dick,” for instance, was reduced to: “A whale of a tale about the one that got away.”
We knew it was ridiculous. That was the intent. How could a single sentence capture the essence of a book? But as it turns out, the joke was on us. Blinkist, a website and an app, now summarizes nonfiction titles in the form of quick takes labeled “blinks.” The end result is more than one sentence, but not by much. Sarah Bakewell’s philosophical history “At the Existentialist Cafe” is broken into 11 screens of information; Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming” fills 13.
Litzak, in other words, although Blinkist, which has been around since 2012 and claims to “connect” 6 million readers, prefers a different spin. It calls its synopses “15-minute discoveries” to indicate how long it takes to read a Blinkist summary. “Almost none of us,” the editors assure us, “have the time to read everything we’d like to read.”
What’s best about reading books is its inefficiency.
Well, yes, of course. “So many books, so little time,” declares a button I once bought at New York’s late, lamented Gotham Book Mart, and like the critic and essayist Walter Benjamin, I judge the quality of someone’s library by the books he or she has yet to read.
That’s because a book is something we ought to live with, rather than speed through and categorize. It offers an experience as real as any other. The point of reading a book is not accumulating information, or at least not that alone. The most essential aspect is the communion between writer and reader.
The premise behind Blinkist, however, is the opposite: Reading can be, should be, measured by the efficient uptake of key ideas. Call it the Twitter of books, all those narratives in concise, digestible packages, conveniently consumable and once blinked at, toted up by the app in your “library” of instant reads.
No, no, no. What’s best about reading books is its inefficiency. I think of Alan Bennett’s 2007 novella “The Uncommon Reader,” in which an imagined Queen Elizabeth II begins to neglect her duties — and even worse, to think for herself — after she gets bitten by the reading bug.
One of Bennett’s points is that reading a book can be disruptive, provocative, transformational. For such a process to take hold, we need to immerse ourselves, let a book devour us, demand something of us, teach us what it can. Blinkist — like, say, SparkNotes or CliffsNotes before it — is instead a service that reframes books for people who don’t, in fact, want to read.
Let’s be honest: Don’t we have enough of them? Why enable any more?
At the end of February, the San Francisco Chronicle laid off its book editor apparently because the coverage did not attract enough online clicks. Other outlets, including the Dallas Morning News and the Miami Herald have recently made similar moves. In the current issue of Harper’s, a critic laments the difficulty of reviewing books when the practice is increasingly under assault.
And yet, reviews, too, have been used as shortcuts. Plenty of readers skip the book in favor of a more succinct critique. This misses the point of reviewing as much as a 15-minute summary misses the point of reading.
We live engulfed by information, and there is more than one way to connect to it — or to choose not to connect to it at all. But if we’re going to read, let’s really do it, don’t you think?
I didn’t spend several days with Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Café” “to learn how philosophy can be a part of life,” as Blinkist would have it. I wanted to share her insights, to engage with her arguments and also learn how the lives of the existentialists influenced their ideas. These distinctions may seem semantic, but they are everything. As for Obama, I have yet to read her book but the brief summaries on Blinkist neither assuaged my curiosity nor told me anything I didn’t already know.
Why do we read books? Why do we give them the time they require? The answer is different for all of us, but as for me, I want to be surprised. I want to see the world reframed, to be confronted, challenged, not affirmed — the very opposite of Blinkist and its collection of useful data points.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion. He will be on the “What It Means to Be a Reader” panel on Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
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