Let’s Talk About Book Summaries
Book summary websites are a natural extension of our attention-starved world, and on the surface it seems like a perfectly reasonable idea. Distilling the essence of a book down into a few paragraphs so we can gain all of the lessons in a fraction of the time? Brilliant! But upon further reflection, and upon trying some of these services myself, I’ve come to realize that book summary websites are not truly helpful when it comes to actually applying concepts to my life. I realized this as I was reading “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.
As I was reading this book, I realized that I certainly could throw Newport’s book into a literary reductionist blender and spit out the basic ideas. In fact, I’ll do that for you now:
- When working, eliminate all possible distractions, insulate yourself from the outside world, and use a form of mindfulness to keep coming back to the task at hand.
- Block off your schedule so that certain times are dedicated fully to one task at a time. Don’t deviate from that task within that time period.
- Take advantage of thinking while walking. Before you start walking, choose a problem that you’re working on and then think only on that problem for the duration of your walk. If your mind starts to wander simply take notice and bring your attention back to the problem (basically meditation but bringing your attention back to the problem rather than the breath).
- Define and implement rituals into your life that signal it is time to enter the flow state/deep work state.
Great, right? I’ve just given you all of the key takeaways from my hours spent reading the book. You’ve basically read the book yourself now! Good luck with your new approach to eliminating distraction and entering the flow state of productivity!
You’re probably thinking: “What, this? This is basically all the book tells you? This may as well be from a click-baity Medium article. I’m not paying for that.”
But it’s NOT all the book tells you or all that the book provides to you. Yes, it is the overarching theme and main practical advice found in the book, but you’re missing out on so much more that the book actually has to offer.
My Issue With Book Summary Tools
I have three main issues with this book summary websites:
- Reading a book is an experience, not just an injection of information
- Context and supporting information go out the window
- Reductionism is an existential threat to the way we produce and consume information
Let’s dive into them.
Reading is an Experience That Book Summaries Can’t Give You
When you pick up a book for the first time and settle in to read it, you’re beginning a journey that is going to last you at least a day or two, but probably much more. You begin with your conception of what the book is going to teach you and from there you are exposed to the fully articulated ideas of the author. You may not think of non-fiction books as an art form, but they are. The way that the author chooses to present the information, including grammar and style choices, format, and structure, contribute to the way that you soak in the information while reading it. Great books are great not just because of the information contained in them but because the author presents it in an engaging, easy to understand, and interesting way. When you read a summary, you are missing this experience entirely.
My favorite non-fiction book of all time is “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. I read it when I was 16 and it completely reshaped the way I looked at communicating with other people. If I had just read the cliff-notes, would it have had the impact that it did? Hell no. The magic was in the way it was presented, with commentary from Dale Carnegie and examples of the concepts in action. The buildup and gradual buy-in to the ideas presented is what ultimately cements them in your mind.
Reading a book is especially important when it’s a personal development or self-help book because the full experience of reading the book is a big part of what gives us the motivation to apply the concepts. When you’re reading one of these books, you’re spending a lot of time each day reading and “spending time” with the author as he builds up to, supports, and explains why you should implement these ideas. When I was reading Deep Focus, I was completely invested in the book and committed to applying the ideas and habits that Cal Newport recommended. Would this have happened if I simply glanced over the bullet points above? No.
Context is Key
I touched on this a bit already but when you simply read a book summary, you’re losing all sense of context. Books are filled with anecdotes, research, musings, and other supporting information that buttress the main ideas. And if you don’t have this support, you just end up with the bare bones ideas flapping in the wind. You need the context to understand why, to buy-in, and to cement the ideas into your brain. The reason I remember the main takeaways from Cal Newport’s book is because I had all the supporting context. If you can read those bullet points, implement them in your life, and regurgitate them to me in a few months, than maybe book summaries are for you, but otherwise you get my point.
Reductionism Threats Our Intellectual Life
Information consumption in our world is constantly becoming more meme-ified, more reduced to its base concepts, more concentrated in headlines and tweets, and more to the tune of skimming than reading. Have you had a conversation with your friends about an intellectual concept or politics lately? Particularly one that none of you are really experts in? In my experience it’s often just a regurgitation of headlines, tweets, memes, and surface knowledge in which none of us has the deep understanding but think that we do because our idea of information and understanding has become incredibly thin.
Perhaps this is all a product of the pure glut of information that we have access to. Maybe the only way we can try and understand things, when there are so many things to understand, is to break everything down to almost irreducible bits.
Maybe our ability to Google answers to almost every question we could ever have has tricked us into thinking that we actually understand far more than we do. Do you remember when you first started Googling things? I’ll admit that using it gave me the feeling that I was extremely adroit and intelligent because I mistakenly equated the use of a tool to access knowledge and actually possessing that knowledge.
What I’m trying to say is that access to information or knowledge is simply not the same as internalizing it. Have you ever glanced over some course materials or an online resource, thought you understood it well enough, and then tried to apply the subject matter to a problem? You end up lost and wondering how in the world you tricked yourself into thinking you understood.
Book summaries are just another way that humans try to cheat the immutable truth of knowledge — that you have to work for it. And it’s the type of emerging technology that promises cheap, easy access to ideas that simply don’t come cheap or easy. Yet can never truly fulfill that promise because without context and without proper delivery of ideas, all you have are lonely words on a page.
Anyway, that’s my random manifesto of the day. Thanks for reading!