Can You Read a Book in a Quarter of an Hour?

There are many reasons not to read a book. One, because you don’t want to. Two, because you started reading, crawled to page 17, and gave up. Three, because the idea of reading never crosses your mind. (If so, lucky you. That way contentment lies.) Four, because it’s Friday, which means that “W.W.E. SmackDown” is

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There are many reasons not to read a book. One, because you don’t want to. Two, because you started reading, crawled to page 17, and gave up. Three, because the idea of reading never crosses your mind. (If so, lucky you. That way contentment lies.) Four, because it’s Friday, which means that “W.W.E. SmackDown” is on Fox, which in turn means that Marilynne Robinson’s beatific new exegetical study of the Book of Genesis must, for now, be gently laid aside. Five, because reading a book is, you know, so lame. Only losers do it. And, six, because you simply don’t have the time.

But what if the need to read won’t go away? In a spasm of initiative and a sudden flush of guilt, you buy a Kindle and download “The House of the Seven Gables,” fully intending to complete, on the subway, what you left unfinished in college. Three weeks in, though, and you still haven’t got as far as Gable No. 1. You toy with joining a local book club, on the principle that having to read something, to keep pace with your fellow-clubbers, will be a fruitful challenge; what holds you back is a fear that the conversation will swiftly turn to campus protests. Before you know it, people will be throwing glasses of Chardonnay and slapping one another on the base of the skull with copies of “Getting to Yes.”

The most potent enemy of reading, it goes without saying, is the small, flat box that you carry in your pocket. In terms of addictive properties, it might as well be stuffed with meth. There’s no point in grinding through a whole book—a chewy bunch of words arranged into a narrative or, heaven preserve us, an argument—when you can pick up your iPhone, touch the Times app, skip the news and commentary, head straight to Wordle, and give yourself an instant hit of euphoria and pride by taking just three guesses to reach a triumphant guano. Imagine, however, that your foe were to become your literate friend. Imagine getting hooked on a book, or on something recognizably book-esque, without averting your eyes from the screen. This is where Blinkist comes in.

Blinkist is an app. If I had to summarize what it does, I would say that it summarizes like crazy. It takes an existing book and crunches it down to a series of what are called Blinks. On average, these amount to around two thousand words. Some of the books that get Blinked are gleamingly new, such as “Leading with Light,” by Jennifer Mulholland and Jeff Shuck, which was published in March; other books are so old that they were written by people whose idea of a short-haul flight involved feathers and wax. In the realm of nonfiction alone, more than six and a half thousand works have been subjected to the Blinkist treatment. Across all platforms, there have been thirty-one million downloads on the app. Right now, there will be somebody musing over Blinks of “Biohack Your Brain,” “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” or “The Power of Going All-In,” which is, I am sorry to report, yet another study of successful leadership. Given the title, I was hoping that it might be about breakfast buffets, or the best way to behave yourself at an orgy.

When joining Blinkist, you are asked to nominate the categories that attract you most: “Mindfulness & Happiness,” for instance, or “Motivation & Inspiration,” or “Productivity.” Each section is marked by a defining logo: “History” by a vase with handles, “Psychology” by a head with the top of its cranium removed, and “Society & Culture,” somewhat nervously, by a tepee. Greedy for the Blinkist experience, I ticked every box, and was at once rewarded with tips for books “based on your past preferences.” By now, my past had lasted seven minutes—algorithmically speaking, a lifetime. And what was the upshot? Four items, all of them designed, I was told, to help me “Overcome Layoff Survivor Syndrome.” Thanks.

Once you are Blinked in, your days will follow a new pattern. Instead of being woken by an alarm, or by a bored spaniel licking your face, you will find yourself greeted by a Daily Blink. This will arrive, with a ping, on your phone, alerting you to a book that, suitably pruned, is ready to be served up for your personal edification. Thus, “Tired of losing arguments? Get the upper hand with today’s pick, Win Every Argument, and learn how to effectively communicate.” Or, “Discover the fundamental principles of economics with The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money!” In other words, there is a proper time to acquaint yourself with the work of John Maynard Keynes, and that time is now. If that scares you, get a load of this, my favorite Daily Blink to date: “Dive deep into the philosophical masterpiece, Being and Time, as Martin Heidegger explores the nature of existence.” And you thought your almond granola would be heavy going.

In practice, there are two options for absorbing a Blink. Either you read it onscreen or you listen to it being recited. Seventy per cent of Blink fans prefer the latter mode, and you can see why; it allows them to combine their mental exercise with other activities. At the gym, say, they can ingest the gist of “Salt Sugar Fat,” by Michael Moss, until their AirPods pop out under the strain of the squats. Alternatively, on the drive to the office, they can treat themselves to a quick scoot through Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens,” while trying to stop the Homo neanderthalensis in the red Bronco from cutting into their lane.

We all remember our first Blink. Mine was a way of catching up. Having failed to peruse Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” when it was published, in 2src18, perhaps because I was too busy studying the helicopter chase in “Mission: Impossible—Fallout,” I decided, late in the day, to give it a whirl. But in what form? The Penguin paperback, comprising around four hundred and fifty pages of text, plus another hundred pages of notes, references, and an index? The full whack, on Audible, nicely narrated by Arthur Morey and lasting nineteen hours and forty-nine minutes? Or the same thing, reduced to a sequence of nine Blinks—ready to consume, on audio, in twenty-four minutes flat? No contest.

The version of Pinker’s argument through which I was hustled by the Blinks could charitably be described as broad brush. Broad enough, indeed, to paint entire swaths of cultural experience with one swipe: “If you’re familiar with European history, you’ve probably heard of the period known as the Enlightenment.” The brushstrokes are assertive enough to cover huge conceptual shifts: “Humanism also led to what’s known as cosmopolitanism, which can be seen in today’s modern values.” Cue the happy ending: “If we look at any number of graphs and hard factual data about the state of the world over the past hundred or more years, we can see that we’re still in the process of adding energy and greatly improving.”

But that’s the trick. We can’t look. On the page, Pinker’s thesis is amply supported by a host of graphs. None of them are reproduced by Blinkist, the purpose of which is to save us the bother of poring over finicky things like graphics and charts, and to steer us away from the confounding weeds of minutiae. As with Pinker, so with William James. His noble work of 19src2, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” is crammed with what he calls “the palpitating documents” that have arisen, in the course of centuries, from individual crises and ecstasies of the spirit. Many such palpitations are quoted verbatim. (“I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire.”) Very few of them, however, survive in the calmer confines of the Blink, which concludes its abstract of James with a finger-wagging directive: “We should adopt a more critical study of religion.”

“No, I don’t have any money. No one has any money.”

Cartoon by Michael Maslin

It’s easy to decry this stripping down of complex reasoning, as if the app were bent solely on decluttering books of everything that lends them vitality. Yet you have to admit: if you’d never read Pinker or James, Blinkist would furnish you with a basic grasp of their intent—sufficient, perhaps, to do more than merely drop their names. If the topics that Pinker addresses happened to crop up in conversation (“Everything is so crappy nowadays, worse than it’s ever been”), you could just about hold your own, at least over a cup of coffee. (“Well, there’s this guy, Pink-somebody, who says that infant mortality is way down.”) Is that what books are coming to, a handy social lubricant? Should you care if literature gets Blinked away, like an eyelash? To find out more, you need to go to Germany.

Blinkist is based in Berlin. The headquarters are halfway along Sonnenallee, an unlovely strip in the southeast quarter of the city. When I visit, the C.E.O. of the company, Holger Seim, tells me, “It was an up-and-coming area, but it never really came.” Pass beneath a gloomy railway bridge, glance in awe at the poster for “Die Show der Megastars” at a nearby hotel, trot up to the second floor of a modern office block, and enter. Once inside, you can immediately tell that you’ve arrived at a booming tech firm, because there’s a swing in the middle of the room. Other giveaways: the slogan “We Exist to Spark Understanding” writ large on a wall; a workplace photograph from 2src2src, with Tim Cook, of Apple, sitting cross-legged at the front of the crowd; and a number of small dogs that skitter and skid along the floor, going nowhere in a hurry and getting there fast.

Seim is trim, keen, approachable, and, most important of all, armed with banana bread. “Somebody brought it in today,” he says, offering a slice. The lack of detectable flaws in his spoken English should be no surprise. “English is not just specific to Blinkist but to the whole tech scene in Berlin,” he tells me. Some forty nationalities, he reckons, are represented in his busy hive of a hundred and sixty fellow-workers. It’s like a miniature U.N. without the suits.

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