The Problem with Blinkist

Alternately: In defense of all those extra words

My brother was in town just after christmas. We were catching up one afternoon, talking about something.  I don’t know what, but it culminated in an epiphany he’d had.  About something.  Again, I don’t remember.  It was important to him, and it had taken a lot of thought, a lot of effort, to get there, and then to present it to me in a way that I could understand and benefit from.

“I guess what I’m saying is: It’s about the journey, not the destination.”

And as he said it, I could see the disappointment in his face.  The annoyance.  The self loathing.  All that effort adequately summarized by a quote we’d both heard a thousand times, and routinely pasted over a stolen picture of a sunset and posted on facebook.

This is not the only time this has happened.


Today I downloaded blinkist, which is an app/service that summarizes books into their main ideas for easy and quick ingestion. I don’t know where I originally heard about Blinkist – I think it’s been quietly infiltrating my subconscious via Instagram ads for weeks, months.  Who knows? Anyway, my friend Ben and I were talking about a book, and he said it wasn’t so great, but the main idea was worth pondering, which lead to the idea of trying blinkist. So I did. And it’s great! Unless it’s not.

As I see it, blinkist as a service rests on a few ideas:

  • Learning is valuable
  • People are busy
  • Books are unnecessarily long

I think that much of the population (at least, the population that I’m familiar with) is pretty on board with those 3 ideas. To add another couple that I think are prevalent:

  • More knowledge makes a person more successful
  • To read or hear an idea is to understand and benefit from it

With this as a platform, the real bottleneck between a person and success is simply how much information they’re able to consume. And in this paradigm, blinkist makes perfect sense. So does Twitter. So does so much of our social media (and regular media) consumption.

We treat words like magic spells that create understanding. Spells that, upon hearing or reading, magically transfer the intent, the expertise, the passion of the author into the reader. All we have to do is hear the right set of words in the right order, and the rest is fluff.

So we can cut out all the extra.  All the fluff that the author put in to stroke his or her  ego.  If we can just get the author to succinctly announce their idea, their reason for writing, everyone would win.

I think that’s garbage. I think understanding takes time. Maybe very long books are the most useful simply because they force the reader to continue thinking about a single idea for long enough to actually start to get it.

I think communication is terribly ineffective. The alchemy of translating feelings and ideas into words, sentences, paragraphs is risky enough – and then you’re less than halfway there! It has to happen again in the other direction, as the reader reverses the process and attempts to turn words into real understanding. To call it “lossy” is an understatement, bordering on the ridiculous. In such an environment, the only hope author or reader have is to talk a lot. To say the same thing in several different ways, over and over again, in hopes that the reader will eventually work out the pattern – put together the bits and pieces they understand from each attempt, into something close to a whole.

So yes, there’s a lot of content out there.  Yes, a lot of it looks interesting.  No, I don’t believe the only thing stopping a person from benefitting from all this content at once is that it hasn’t been appropriately summarized, or that we havent heard the bullet points.  We’ve all heard the bullet points.  The important stuff is what comes in between them.

With all this said, I’m still kind of excited about blinkist. I think its presentation, its message is flawed – but as a way to find out what I might want to learn more about, I still think it sounds pretty interesting.

When I’m famous and this post gets summarized “for busy people”, it will be reduced to “You just have to put in the work”. And somebody will read that, pat themselves on the back for all the time they saved, and move on.

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