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Why are there so many book summary apps?

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February 9, 2021, 2:15pm

There is a new app. It distills books, both classics and modern bestsellers, into brief, accessible summaries. You can listen to audio versions of summaries, or read them on your phone. The app is called Instaread—or it’s called Blinkist, or it’s called GetAbstract or Joosr or 12Min or StoryShots or SumizeIt or CatchUp. These apps’ interfaces and summary lengths vary, but all of them do pretty much the same thing: summarize books. Most of these apps were founded in the past decade. 17 million people use Blinkist alone. What is going on?

Firstly, readers are mostly using these apps for nonfiction summaries. Though Instaread offers summaries of titles by fiction greats like Nabokov, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Franzen, Emma Cline, and Jonathan Safran Foer, most of its contemporaries only offer summaries of nonfiction, and even given the option, readers tend toward business and informational reads. App reviews reflect this: says Instaread user Mikester1983, “I love staying on top of the best business reads but don’t have the time or money to buy and read the actual books.” Instaread user Nicky Beaird refers to the app as “Leaders Digest.” In these cases, readers view books as tomes of facts to be synthesized, rather than the unified experience a novel is intended to provide. Instaread’s first displayed section is “Business and Economics”; many of the texts are about self-improvement (Extreme Productivity; Managing Oneself; Millionaire Success Habits). It follows that a reader searching to optimize their life will also want to optimize their reading experience. The efficient snake efficiently eats its own tail, and, satiated, embarks on a day of closing deals.

We’ve also grown used to consuming information passively, through our ears, as we go about our days. Since the term “podcast” was coined in 2003, it seems we’ve been perennially experiencing a podcast boom. Podcasts are constantly touted as the new big thing, as their popularity trends steadily upward. Podcasts reached over 100 million Americans every month in 2020; in 2020, for the first time, more Americans listened to podcasts weekly than attended religious services weekly; there are around 62 million weekly podcast listeners in the U.S.; podcast revenue is expected to top $1 billion in 2021. How substantively different is an informational podcast from an audio summary of a book? Not that much; app developers know that too.

Is any of this surprising? Intuitively, we live in an efficiency-driven time. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009, even as inflation renders that $7.25 worth fifteen percent less than a decade ago. We love podcasts because we can listen while walking or taking the subway or cleaning or working. They fill previously idle time; they minimize wastefulness. Same with book summaries; they may not be pleasurable or artful, but that matches the crowded world outside. Fine. And if book summaries aren’t for you, I won’t press you on it—I’m too busy cashing in, working on my first summary as we speak.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

-light of life
-fire of loins
-sin
-soul
-makes tongue walk down stairs and tap teeth

It’s harder than I thought . . .

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