How to Use Book Summary Services

What do knowledge workers eat, figuratively speaking? Knowledge comes best prepared in a container we call a book. But do we use book summaries?

[Watch and listen to me read this]

Problem: to be an effective _______ strategist you have to read a lot, especially books. But time is scarce and perhaps the Internet has damaged our attention spans.

Solution: book summaries?

By the way, I’m not talking about abridged books, such as the 100-page versions of literary classics. I’m talking about 10-page versions, more or less. Barely more than bulletpoints. Examples of the form are Four Minute Books, MentorBox, and Blinkist.

These online book summary services typically trade in  Business and Personal Development, aka BPD, as well as Big Idea books. Blinkist and Mentorbox have other types of books in their catalogue, but the focus is on business nonfiction. 

Disclaimer: other kinds of publications (fiction novels, netflix series, cookbooks, whatever) are also concept containers and might help you think creatively. 

A good nonfiction book is kind of like a large concept container, pretty much the biggest type of concept container that we work with. The concepts are not new, but the container is.

And a good book summary explains each of the concepts in a simple way, but it also compresses the container itself – the interconnection of ideas, the key stories, etc. That’s not easy. 

Doing your own summaries

Summarizing books (or anything really) is probably always worth it if you are the one writing the summary. Especially if you take a Feynman Technique-eque approach, which among other things has you teach what you’ve learned to a child. Thus forcing you to keep it simple.

For that reason, book summary services are worth looking at because they provide so many excellent models of summarization. 

One of the toughest concepts for knowledge workers to explain simply is their own business model but also their positioning. The “what exactly do you do?” question. Beyond, “works on the computer”. This isn’t a bad thing to apply summarization techniques to.

If you don’t have a real child handy to explain your complex concepts to, you might look the Flesch-Kincaid readability tools. These grade your writing by reading level, down to 3rd grade, by evaluating things like averages sentence length, word length, transition words, and other elements of your writing. (There are WordPress plugins that use these).

But the professionals have more advanced techniques.

Niklas Göke, for example. His Four Minute Book service began with summarizing over 365 books in a single year. This is not only super-impressive but must have been an intense learning experience.

But then he’s a full-time writer, whereas the context here on Second Opinion is non-writers whose business model requires them to write part-time.

Reading others summaries

Four Minute Books,Blinklist, Mentorbox are all based on the same promise as the pre-Internet business Cliff’s Notes: less for more.

That is, you put in less time, you get the same value from the book. Or maybe not the same, but the value-for-time ratio is still attractive.

I’m mean why not — Kindle Analytics data shows that one of the most popular big idea books in the last decade, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, is put down after the first chapter.

What happens at the conclusion of the first chapter (and the introduction)? Does the book get worse? No, it continues to hold one’s interest. But the book’s primary idea is already been forked over. This means that the first-chapter-reader is more than able to answer the “what’s it about?” question at a dinner party.

Social capital extracted; mission accomplished.

That said

we’re not all first-chapter-readers. At least not all the time. I’m sort of a reading flexitarian here and I bet you are too. Depends on the book, right?

Sometimes we really lust for that web of related ideas, data, and narratives that are tied to the central premise. Mmmm yes!! You tell me.

Or or.. we may merely want space to look at the main ideas from different viewpoints. I like this, sometimes you go back and forth between rejecting and embracing a book’s idea before you realize how great it is.

That’s not possible, of course, if the book just doesn’t have much to say. Or doesn’t have interesting stories. Some books are full of brilliant ideas and data, but repetitive, poorly edited, and lack interesting stories. Often they’re too wordy. It’s like listening to an attention-hog humanities professor lecture you — in your free time. In this case, bring on the book summary!

The key drawback


In Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, the character Nagasawa says, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”.

This is the problem with the major book summary services on the market — they’re all pulling from the same Bla Bla Bestseller List.

Or whatever — they are selling the summary to as many other people besides you as possible, or the business model wouldn’t work.

So even if you suck the marrow in four minutes, or twelve minutes, it’s the same marrow that the rest of the BPD-book-reader public sucks. How do I conclude this analogy — so your soup tastes the same?

You cook your soup with the same ingredients. The same ideas.

This is why Malcolm Gladwell says to mine the public library system. Because libraries are:

  • only partially swayed by what’s hot and what sells
  • much less swayed by recency bias
  • curated by librarians, who are experts in books

In conclusion, it depends. It depends on the book and it depends on what you want. If you want to be up on what others read and trend to repackaged-common-sense business books, maybe because they motivate you or stimulate your imagination, consider the book summary services.

But book summary services such as Blinkist, Four Hour Books, Mentorbox are in the box. If you want to read and think outside of the box, they can’t, by virtue of their business model, be the only way you consume books.