A Librarian Responds to Blinkist, Speed Reading, and Other Reading Shortcuts

Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t loath them, but…

Spoiler Alert: He doesn’t loath them, but…

I suspect that it’s a normal human trait to want to make hard things easier. That’s probably why there are so many Medium articles on making obscene piles of cash in no time at all, or gaining a million followers yesterday. Pick a hyperbole and someone is trying to find a way to hack it. Reading is no different; seekers of knowledge want to play with mind-bending ideas, but can’t commit to doing it the age-old way.

This isn’t new, of course, people have been attempting shortcuts to reading books through speed reading courses, book summary booklets and, I don’t know, playing tapes in their sleep for time immemorial. In this context, apps like Blinkist which provides non-fiction book summaries via a series of short multi-paragraph “Blinks” or the myriad Rapid Serial Visualization Presentation (RSVP) apps which quickly flash words and phrases at you, are no surprise. So what does this librarian think?

Well, my mind moves on two parallel tracks here. The first says that searching for shortcuts is neither a mindful nor a healthy way to live an intellectual life. I’m a fan of the slow information movement which is the antithesis of cometing non-stop through books and articles. Take the time, it says, to read carefully and think deeply. The second is my big eyes at libraries and bookstores and my voracious mind bouncing between multiple books, blogs, podcasts, websites on a daily basis, trying to make sense of the world. There’s so much out there and I’m curious about a lot of it. Why not feed that fascination as often and as quickly as I could?

What it comes down to is this: It’s all fine, as long as you choose your reading mode with full awareness. Put another way, know what you’re getting and what you’re missing. As a librarian, I know how information is organized not just in a library (hello, Dewey), but out in the world, too. I have an intimate relationship with different information conduits and know the trade-offs with each. That’s how I help people find the right resources for their research. Sometimes, what they need is a big book written by an eminent professor and sometimes an encyclopedia article will do. In the latter case, do they need a specialized encyclopedia or will World Book or Britannica (or even Wikipedia) work just fine?

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I’d like to assume that everyone can discern the difference between the big book and the little article. The former typically lays out a well-researched and complex argument with an overarching idea or three, supported by multiple streaks of reasoning, bolstered by evidence, and perhaps ensconced in a several narratives. The latter gives a quick-and-dirty summary of the topic, outlining a few basic terms and concepts. It’s the difference between a high-resolution photo and a snapshot taken with a potato phone. One contains a ton of information and can be enhanced as needed, while the other is all grainy surface.

There are some books that I have some interest in, but I’ll probably never read. For those books, I’m fine with just getting the basic, blurry, facts. That’s why I’ve shelled out for a month or two of Blinkist membership. Because I know I’d likely not be reading, for example, Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann in its entirety, but I liked learning about Hanlon’s Razor from the book’s blinks. On the other hand, the combination of a long-term interest in Stoicism and the blinks of A Handbook for New Stoics by Gregory Lopez and Massimo Pigliucci has urged me to get a hold of the entire book. It goes in both directions, you see.

In using Blinkist I’m fully aware that it’s not a replacement for books, even when though the app feels that way. I’m certain that there’s no magic which can adequately cover the behavioral economics classic Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, a landmark in the sub-field of positive psychology, in a page or three. Reading hard books, like Kahneman’s, takes time and mental effort. Anything else is wishful thinking.

Speed reading apps and courses promise the moon, but generally fit into the same category. They’ll help you read marginally faster without sacrificing comprehension and retention, but beyond that the brain has limits and there are going to be trade-offs. Which is, again, fine — with some books or articles, you don’t need to remember or understand every single thing, just the main ideas are fine. Realistically, unless we read closely and/or take notes, that’s mostly what we recall anyway after a few weeks.

And just like with Blinkist, there are some works that are immune to speed reading techniques. Unless you’re a very unique individual, hurling through Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, to give two examples, is probably pointless. Similarly, there’s a reason most of us don’t watch movies at 1.5 or two times the speed. We want to be present to enjoy them in all of their glory! It’s the same with good books, do you really want them to end? Yet they do and it’s one of life’s tragedies!

Alright, you grok my thoughts here, and you still want shortcuts, fine! If you want to get a feeling for non-fiction books without ever picking them up, here are a few tips:

  • Read articulate reviews in high-quality publications. Highly-competent critics write expansively about the books they read, summarizing main ideas, giving them context, and often adding an interesting point-of-view to the literature. It’s the next best thing to actually reading the book.
  • Seek out long-form interviews with the authors. Not five-minute radio snapshots, but two-hour podcast talkfests that talk about the book and more.
  • Skim an overview book on the topic like the “For Dummies” or Idiot’s Guide” series. These introductory books tend to be structured for easy reading for non-experts. Reading them cover to cover will take considerably more time than listening to 9 blinks (which is approximately 15 minutes), but likely less than reading a textbook on Quantum Mechanics.

I’ll end with the simple, non-secret, and slightly counterintuitive way to increase your reading speed that doesn’t include outlandish or impossible claims: Read regularly for an hour or more. Many books are slow-going at first as you get to know the author’s voice and way of expressing herself, but as you continue, your reading speed is likely to increase. This can even be true for dense ones like the philosophy books above, though it may not get much faster (nor should it — hard things take time and effort). Basically, weigh your reading options based on your goals for engaging with each individual title, and if you end up visiting SparkNotes, it’s fine, I won’t hold it against you.