What Blinkist offers its members

Blinkist really has something. Forget the awful title, and the attempt to present the service as the internet equivalent of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends: as you can see from the advert above, reading makes you a better person (which means I should by now be a saint).

Seriously, Blinkist is an impressive service: it aims at being nothing less than the Netflix of book summaries (if such a thing is possible). Here is how Blinkist describes itself:

A Book Explained in 15 Minutes The average book takes about eight hours to read. That means if you wanted to check out every book on this list, it would take at least 40 hours. With Blinkist, you can get the core messages in 1 hour, 15 minutes. The Blinkist app gathers the key ideas from nonfiction books and explains them in 15 minutes. So, if you want to check out any of the books on this list, you can get the most important ideas quickly on the app. Plus, there are 5000 other titles to explore.

Pretty much, Blinkist delivers what it claims. The key strands are:

  • Emphasising recommendations rather than reviews
  • Using extensive curation and search to help you find and read the titles
  • A promise of personalization as the system becomes more familiar with what you read
  • The summaries attempt to present the titles in a neutral way, without disagreeing with the major premisses
  • Each book is accompanied, at the end, by recommendations for what to read next.
  • The tool may appear to trivialise (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations reduced to 9 minutes) but it does give you the essence of what a book is about.

What are the downsides of Blinkist?

  • The emphasis on self-help, personal growth, and investment, limits the scope, although it is possible to ignore most of this emphasis. Right from the start, you are asked to specify your personal goals before proceeding further.
Blinkist goals. I still can’t decide which, if any, of these goals appealed to me. I’m not sure what “being more mindful” is – does that mean not losing my doorkey?
  • Just 5,000 books in total – way too few. Most of the books you see on the site are recent.
  • The claim that recommendations are better for you than reviews is simplistic.
  • The very neutrality of the presentation reduces the validity. This is not a way to engage closely with books.
  • Much like Netflix, everything on the Blinkist site is aimed around seamless transition from book summary, to the next book, to the next book, and so on. Searches are ruthless pruned to just ten results. Every book has key takeaways on the last summary page.

If my comments below are somewhat negative, that’s because I take reading – digital reading – rather seriously, and Blinkist only partially meets what I am looking for.

When Warren Buffett was asked about the secret to his wealth and success, he revealed that he read every day—500 pages, to be precise.

It sounds too good to be true. When I read about Warren Buffet reading 500 pages every day, I sat down immediately at my desk and then asked myself – which book was he reading? He didn’t specify, and it might have been the Bible, or the Stock Exchange listings, for all I know. Seriously, here is the problem. A site that tells you that reading books is a good thing is always, in my opinion, suspicious – it depends what you read.

Curation and summarization, Blinkist’s USPs, are actually not such great advantages. Blinkist is very unlikely to summarise a book it will then denounce as rubbish. Somewhat like Reader’s Digest, it is obliged to provide positive treatments of every book on the platform. It’s unlikely that there will be any books summarized as being not worth reading.  

Certainly, reducing a book to 15 minutes sounds wonderful, but let’s be honest, most of us spend even less than 15 minutes getting the idea of a book. Most books are more talked about than read (as the wonderful How to Talk about Books you haven’t read, 2007, reveals), so we certainly need some way of gathering information about books before we read them. There is simply not enough time to read all the books we want to read.

But if you want to get an idea of what a book is about, you can read a review; most non-fiction books are reviewed somewhere, and it takes less than 15 minutes to find a review or two of a non-fiction book. A good review will give you the main gist of the book; and in addition, a good review will introduce you to the swirl of opinions and values into which any book exists. Some people will agree, some will disagree, with the claims of the book. The historiography of a book is a vital part of getting to know a book, and, strangely, you don’t need to read the book to pick up the historiography.

Having said all of the above, it is undoubtedly helpful as part of the process of becoming familiar with books that you can turn to a very brief summary. After all, if you can’t explain what a book is about in a few sentences, can you be said to have understood it?

How did I get an opinion of Blinkist? A friend told me about it. I looked at the website and I was underwhelmed. “Be more knowledgeable” is such a vague goal. It looks like a self-help site, and sure enough, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is featured prominently (sample recommendation: “Become genuinely interested in other people”. If I need to be told it, I can’t be genuine about it.). Blinkist themselves offer as goals “”95% of Blinkist members read significantly more than before”. I don’t think the goal is to read more, it’s to read smarter.

Nonetheless, I think Blinkist will find a home in my reading  for providing a brief summary of non-fiction titles. It won’t replace reviews, and I won’t trust the search interface, but it will certainly meet a need for my reading habits.