Let Your Phone Condense And Describe Books. What Could Go Wrong?

True meaning reverberates in the unspoken chasm between what we can show and what we can tell about it. O.K., that’s it for this Blink. But before we let you go, we wanted to let you know that this Blink was narrated by an A.I.-generated voice model. That’s me.

Imagine Wittgenstein, never less than agonized at the best of times, hearing those words. His head would explode like a grenade.

It should be stressed that Blinkist is not the only abbreviator on the block. There is also Sumizeit, a lesser animal, whose audio condensations last some ten to fifteen minutes. Nor, as any historian of the print trade will confirm, is Blinkist without precedent in its underlying desire. To cut a long story short, abridging has always been in vogue. Eighteenth-century parents, wishing to school their offspring in piety without the use of the whip, could turn to John Newbery’s edition of the Bible, “adorned with Cuts for the Use of Children,” published in 1764, or, only a year later, to a larger and fancier product—“An Abridgement of Scripture History designed for the Amusement and improvement of Children: wherein the most Striking actions in the Old Testament are made plain to the youngest Capacities: adorned with head Peices expressive of the Subject of Each Narrative.” (Is that not Blinkism avant la lettre?) If the goal was to shield the young from unsuitable material—for God’s sake, don’t let them read the stuff about honeycombs and lips in the Song of Solomon!—the title pages did not say so. Instead, their common emphasis was on adornment, the implication being that in whittling down a text you were not selling it short but buffing it up and adding to its appeal.

You could argue that the paring of prose for children is a specific discipline, and there is, indeed, a long tradition of classics being made palatable for youthful tastes. At bedtime in the early nineteen-hundreds, you could read out “Gulliver’s Travels, Retold for Little Folk,” by Agnes Grozier Herbertson, in the comforting certainty that any Swiftian unseemliness had been erased. (The subtitle, for a tale that is partly about little folk, is wonderfully tin-eared.) Rather more inspiring is the notion that the art of synopsis itself is, or was, considered a subject fit for the classroom. Samuel Thurber’s “Précis Writing for American Schools: Methods of Abridging, Summarising, Condensing, with Copious Exercises” (1936) abounds with startling examples of what was once demanded. We are invited to inspect summaries of a Wordsworth sonnet, “The World Is Too Much with Us,” which were, according to Thurber, “written in ten minutes by pupils of the senior year in high-school.” He has harsh words for those students taking the fall paper of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1919, who had to précis Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and stumbled in the attempt. “Their knowledge of mythology was meagre,” Thurber says with a sniff. Dumbass kids.

It is that generation, reared on the verbal need to squeeze, which grew up to become the target audience for the most comprehensive campaign of textual compression ever mounted. The Reader’s Digest condensed-books club came into being in 1950, and within a year it had garnered more than half a million members. Four years later, that number had risen to two and a half million. In his 1958 study of the Reader’s Digest, bearing the presumptuous—and, in the event, erroneous—title “Of Lasting Interest,” James Playsted Wood describes the mechanics of condensation. “The editors read about 2800 books a year in the United States and 1000 in England,” Wood writes. Once a lucky book is plucked from the throng, an editor makes the initial rough cut. Then:

Three more editors go over this first condensation, making further cuts, perhaps restoring some already made, making sure that the contents, the spirit, and the style of the author are retained in the shortened version. Nothing essential is changed.

In the light of that hard labor, it is a cruel irony that the condensed books should, over time, have dwindled into a byword for the redundant middlebrow. Unloved and unclaimed, they lurk on the shelves of thrift stores, the gleam all but faded from their embossed spines. (Some were clad in leatherette. Luxury!) Should you wish to take the pulse of postwar hankerings, however, you could do worse than run your finger down those spines and chart the contents. In the summer of 1952, for instance, subscribers could enjoy, in a single convenient volume, “The Hidden Flower,” by Pearl S. Buck; “The Dam Busters,” by Paul Brickhill; “The City Boy,” by Herman Wouk; and “My Cousin Rachel,” by Daphne du Maurier. Wouk it was who, after a work of his went under the knife, congratulated the Digest, claiming to be “astonished at the way the main plot was preserved, in about one-fifth the compass of the novel.” To judge by the elephantine bulk of the average Wouk, this skillful lesson in economy is not one that he took to heart.

Wood’s survey quotes Ralph Henderson, a long-standing Digest employee, in charge of the condensing squad, who was laudably clear in his intentions: to do “an honest job of representing good current books.” He added, “It is insincere editing to give the customers something you don’t like yourself.” Such plainspoken confidence, especially in the contested field of reading, smacks of a vanished age, yet a direct line can be drawn, I would say, from Henderson to Holger Seim. Literary eras show their true selves when they decide what is worthy of encapsulation, and also in the prejudices that prevail, by no means consciously, when the blade is applied to the meat of a given text.

A case in point: when Blinkist entered the fray, in 2013, its list of abbreviated books ran to a hundred titles. Two more would be added every week. “Initially, we built a product for ourselves,” Seim tells me. “So we said, like, ‘Where do we start? What’s our early-adopter audience?’ Well, we thought, it’s probably not the readers of politics and history books. It’s more a young, tech-savvy audience, young professionals like us. What do they read? They read all the self-help books. ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.’ ‘Getting Things Done.’ ‘Atomic Habits.’ All that.”

It’s true that James Clear’s “Atomic Habits” wasn’t published until 2018, but Seim’s proposition stands, and Blinkist is still overwhelmingly weighted toward that peculiar twenty-first-century zone where the sensitive upkeep of the self merges, without friction, into running a company and stroking the bulge in your bank account. What the app provides, to that extent, is a synoptic gospel. As I write, my Daily Blink has just landed, nudging me toward “How to Make a Few Billion Dollars,” by Brad Jacobs, which is described on my screen as “an insightful road map to assembling a team that’s equipped to catapult a company to staggering heights of success.” From Pearl S. Buck to dollar billionaires. It’s quite a trip.

The ideal Blinkist devotee, in other words, is the kind of person who would invent Blinkist. In an age defined by its grim-jawed polarization, is there not a risk in abetting so narrow a view of the world, and so militant a scheme to milk it? “On the one hand, we do not want to be missionary. We do not have a political agenda,” Seim says. “We try to be neutral. Switzerland. On the other hand, we believe the concept of short-form content—Blinks—lends itself very well to moving out of a bubble.” There was an attempt to try randomization (that is, recommending a book unaligned with the Blinks that a reader had previously selected), but, as Seim admits, it proved unpopular: “If leaving people in their echo chambers drives more engagement, more renewals, more business value, then it’s hard to say we do the other things. We need to pay the salaries and make a living.”

Yet that is not the whole story. Far behind the walls of the front list, there are other stories, bedded deep in Blinkist, awaiting their turn. Say you’re a mid-level executive stuck in an airport lounge, staring wanly at your muffin. What if you don’t feel like catapulting your company to staggering heights? How about a gutsy thriller? You open Blinkist, swat aside the imprecations of Brad Jacobs, and search under “Crime.” Up comes a book you’ve dimly heard of but never read. Scrolling down, you hit the following sentence: “Raskolnikov bashes her again and again as blood gushes from her skull.” That’s the stuff. Headphones on. Half an hour later, as your flight is called, you sit there motionless, hearing only this:

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