What’s Wrong With Just Reading Book Summaries?

I was having a conversation with a friend who likes to read book summaries. He’s not a big reader, but still wants the ideas from great books, so he goes out of his way to read the summaries of lots of books to get the gist of their main ideas.

I do occasionally read book summaries or reviews, but I still read a lot of long books, often on quite specific topics. However, I’ll never be able to read most books on most topics. If your goal for reading is to become more knowledgeable, does my friend’s strategy of sticking to the summaries actually make more sense?

Why Read?

There are lots of reasons to read books, but the two biggest are probably knowledge or entertainment. I enjoy reading, so some of my reading motivation certainly comes from the latter. But I often try to pick books I think will be important. If entertainment were my only goal, I might stick to softer fiction, or give up reading in favor of movies, television or less strenuous media.

Reading for knowledge matters to me. But if that’s the case, reading only the summaries doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Here’s the argument:

  1. Books, like most things, have unevenly distributed ideas and value. The thesis of a major argument is worth comparitively more than smaller arguments. A summary gives the main thesis and necessary evidence without going into as much detail. Presumably on an ideas-per-hour-invested basis, summaries will win out over full books.
  2. Nobody will read even a fraction of all books, possibly not even a sizeable percentage of truly great books. The marginal value of reading an extra book doesn’t diminish quickly. If a higher concentration of value can be obtained by reading a summary than a full book, it will always make more sense to keep reading summaries.

The internal consistency of this book-reading strategy seems to make sense to me. But, when I look around the world at world-famous polymaths and autodidacts, I rarely see them using this strategy. In fact, they frequently use the opposite—going over hard books multiple times.

Consider economist and polymath Tyler Cowen, writing about his strategy for reading great books:

“1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back. Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature…

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need.”

Given our previously stated assumptions and arguments, this strategy would (appear) entirely backwards. If reading the same material experiences diminishing returns, then reading a book twice must be less efficient than reading it once or reading just a summary. So where’s the flaw in that line of reasoning?

What’s Wrong with Reading Summaries?

So I have a couple theories of why my friend’s strategy seems, at first glance, to make a lot of sense, but why it is relatively unused amongst the very people who seem to care a lot about getting the knowledge from hard reads.

Theory #1: The Value of Books is Elevating Thinking

The first theory I have is that the value of books comes not only from their ideas, which of course can often be gleaned from a summary, but from being a difficult mental task that requires focus and simultaneously guides deeper thinking.

In this light, reading a hard book is more than just the ideas you obtain from it. Thinking about the book’s content while you read it is what matters. So a really long, good book on a topic will provoke much longer reflection and therefore have a much larger impact than a short summary or perhaps even many short summaries.

This idea seems somewhat radical though. Certainly some of the value of a book must lie in the specific knowledge it imparts? If this theory were true it would certainly make a lot of other reading habits seem futile beyond merely supporting reading in more depth.

Theory #2: Summaries are Well-Known, Depth is What’s Lacking

The second hypothesis I have is that most people only get the gist of major thinkers. The average educated adult probably knows that Niccolo Machiavelli had some pretty ruthless advice, but don’t know what he actually suggested in The Prince.

In this view, because summary-level knowledge is common, you can get a competitive advantage by having read works in greater depth. Knowing a few things to a deeper level might make up for having greater, broad summary-level knowledge because you can specialize in conversations and intellectual arenas which benefit from that deeper insight.

The strongest counterargument to this idea, though, is that many voracious long-readers read a wide swath of genres and topics. Therefore, it seems inconsistent to argue for longer reads because of returns to specialization and then read all types of books.

Theory #3: Reading is a Prestige Activity, Summaries are Too Easy

The Hansonian version of me sees the clearest reason for this divergence is that reading long, hard books is something few people would do (or enjoy). Therefore, you can signal your erudition by reading lots of deep, hard books, even if you end up sacrificing sheer volume of ideas.

Weigh In: Is It Better to Read Long and Deep, or Short and Wide?

What do you think? Is it better to focus your reading time on longer reads, or should you cast a wider net and focus more time on book summaries and reviews?

For me, I’m inclined to continue my current reading habits, if only for the first reason I mentioned—that I enjoy reading full books because I find them interesting. But I’m certainly open to the idea of pushing my habits marginally towards more summaries and less depth if that turned out to be the more efficient approach.

  • Michael

    I think another difference here is one that you have mentioned before when talking about your MIT project.

    Spending a whole week (or more) engaged in a particular set of ideas is very different than reading the summary in 20 minutes. It lets you think about the ideas, chew on them, and let other stimuli in your environment affect the way that you process them.

    For example, I have been reading Lateral Thinking and Antifragile over the past few weeks, and last night I realized that lateral thinking is the application of optionality and asymmetric risk to thinking. I would likely have never made this connection if I had only read the summaries and not allowed these two ideas to influence each other.

  • Given that reading relatively few hard classics multiple times and reading a wide variety of short summaries have different benefits and drawbacks, I find it a priori unlikely that the optimal amount of time to spend on summaries is zero. In fact, I’d guess that some of your success in choosing which works to read carefully is due to hearing enough of a summary (in book form or not) to know that you’ll find it rewarding to dive in deeper.

    My suggestion is that since it takes so little time to read book summaries, you’ll learn more by experimenting than by trying to reason out which arguments outweigh the others. You could pick a cheap strategy (e.g. every day read that day’s free book summary on Blinkist), pick a metric that’s important to you (perhaps the number of blog post or project ideas you generate), and then see whether it makes a difference.

  • JeffreyBiles

    I agree that the summary is very useful in telling you whether you’ll enjoy or benefit from diving deeper. It’s the same purpose as a movie trailer- they’re often denser with jokes and exciting sequences than the movies themselves, but no one advocates skipping all movies in favor of just watching trailers.

    The exception may be a certain class of business book- the ones where the publisher told the author that it had to be at least 200 pages, even though the author only had 20 pages of idea.

  • Arthur Guerrero

    I think reading books in their entirety (real good books/ classics) is essential because you get a real gist of what the writer was trying to convey. You get a glimpse into their genius and their inspiration. You get a chance to hopefully internalize the lessons in the books, because of the emotional anchors you are creating by spending so much time reading the writer’s ideas. You go through the entire roller coaster ride that the writer spent years trying to create with their editor.

    A book summary will only give you the ideas, but you won’t remember much or internalize anything. I like book summaries for books that I know are good but that I don’t think I’ll be reading anytime soon. Maybe, I’m just not that interested in the topic, but I’ve heard excellent reviews. I also don’t have an issue using summaries for books that I don’t think were written that well.

  • Anonymous

    I started out as a volume reader, reading many books without going too deep. That helped me a lot get the overall picture in lot of subjects. Now I just read few books over and over, while making detailed notes and seeing how it can be applied.
    Reading is not worth anything if it doesn’t lead to applicable knowledge and application. That requires deep reading imho.
    My 2 cents.

  • I like to read books, and make notes/summaries. This helps me remember them better, and easy to refresh the takeaways. I rarely re-read a book, since I tend to turn to my notes. The only time I’ll read a summary of a book that I have not read is to help me decide if I am interested in book content, and the book cover is not enough.

    You can see my current book notes at http://www.dotnetsurfers.com/books/, in case you decide to read a few summaries :).

  • I think most of the books that are being published are too long and filled with stories, anecdotes, and tons of repetitive, boring, ego-maniac or irrelevant stuff. If you really want to get value out of your attention and money, a summary of x1 A4 sheet with all of the really original and creative ideas of the book would be very wellcome. Anybody knows about such a service? I would pay for it, but I then would worry about who is doing the summary 🙂

  • There´s a very interesting article in Brain Pickings about something closely related to this issue: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/10/26/explainer-elucidator-enchanter-great-writing/. I guess I would rather have ultra-short summaries for Explainers and would certainly read the hole book of an ‘Enchanter’ author. Now, how to differenciate one from the other before buying the book?.

  • Bjarke Tan

    philosophers note Does this but I personally think you learn more the deeper you go into each topics

  • Scott Young

    Agreed. This touches on Theory #1, which is that more time = more results with material. But I think it can only be partially true, otherwise the implication would be that spending an infinitely long time with a single book is comparable to reading many books, which is obviously false.

  • Scott Young

    An interesting experiment, but so many of the benefits of reading are immeasurable.

    I think my theories are not so much about whether reading summaries or long-form books are in-fact better (which can be done through experimentation) but about trying to understand why reading mostly summaries tends to be an activity I see discouraged by those who are the most knowledgeable. As in, if the people who are best at this don’t do it, why is that?

  • I wonder: is there any evidence that these people, do not, in fact, read lots of summaries?

    Once I heard that Cowen, to use your example, reads multiple books per day. Perhaps he is going through those quickly, as summaries, almost, but then spending most of his time diving into a small selection of books.

    To me, it seems that one of the most important skills involved is, as others have suggested here, the ability to determine which books are worthy of in-depth reads, which are bloated but contain important ideas, and which are simply shallow and skippable.

  • Maybe the answer to that quandary is that reading the same material *does* have diminishing returns, but the returns diminish at a much slower rate than most of us ever experience.

    It probably doesn’t make sense to read a book for a 20th time when you’ve already read it 19, unless it’s fiction or a similarly abstract kind of work, one that makes you feel a certain way, but maybe there’s more value in reading a book for a 3rd or 4th time than we think.

  • PassThePopcorn

    blinkest.com does summaries of non-fiction books that are relatively good.

  • PassThePopcorn

    I think the value varies by the type of book. There are classics out there that require deep, concentrated reading. And then there is the business-book-of-the-moment that everyone expects you to have read but may have far fewer deep thoughts per page. For the latter, I like summaries, with blinkest being a very cost-effective solution (although there are many others). I have found that if an idea in a summary particularly resonates with me I will go back and actually read the entire book, but more often then not I don’t find it necessary. (This is similar to reading the abstracts of academic articles in order to determine which are worth spending more time with; both techniques are the only way to deal with the firehouse of information being produced on a daily basis.)

  • Jeff Geisler

    Before the net there was a paper version of summaries that I subscribed to for several years (can’t recall the name of the company that provided this service). I discontinued getting these because nothing ever seemed to really stick. Looking back what I did not get from the summaries was any real sense of having learned something new. I get the same feeling when I browse my LinkedIn feed today. Lots of summary info but when I’m done I feel like I’ve been watching TV for hours.

  • Damias Mcdonald

    I use a system like Tyler Cowen’s, so I prefer to read the books.

    But I’ll read them in a way that won’t be as deep. More of an advanced skim (Take about 1hr to read a 250-300 page book, which is a little over 2X my normal speed).

    The first read, I prioritize finishing, and finishing quickly. Meaning I usually only pick up surface level knowledge.

    Then I rank the book 5-10 (it’s really a 1-10 ranking, but anything with a 5 or below isn’t worth rereading. So it doesn’t matter what the degree of not worth rereading it’s at.)

    Books ranked
    9-10: Top of the list reread. Go back and take your time with this one
    7-8: Worth the reread, but you have some of the main points already
    5-6: You got 80% of the idea in that reread. If you really care about the minor details go ahead, otherwise your first read was enough.

    If I do read summaries, I’ll rank them the same way to decide which books are worth a full read.

  • Alex is

    Are you able to explain or even recall an article you read a month ago? Probably not. Neither can I. The same happens with book summaries.

    To completely choose one or the other seems unproductive and dogmatic, so the real question is – which one should be your default? I think the answer lies in our poor human memory. If you spend 15-30 minutes on a book summary, you will forget 80% + of it within a week.

    The only chance you have of getting anything out of a summary is if you review it repeatedly (which seems like the opposite of what someone who mostly reads summaries would want to do) or by creating a system right then and there to apply the information. So the amount of effort it would take to get anything tangible out of summaries is actually much more time-consuming than broad summary reading would imply.

    While there are plenty of good reasons and ways to read book summaries, doing so exclusively seems like the equivalent of spending your day reading lifehack listicles, hacking for hacking’s sake.(http://www.artofmanliness.com/2015/04/13/stop-hacking-your-life/)

    An under recognized point is that while you should obviously not be reading books that are bad or maybe even average, finishing a book that’s perhaps dry but unquestionably useful takes extended periods of focus and commitment. The benefits of this long reading, which acts as training for the brain, is nowhere to be found in summary reading.

  • Nate

    There are additional aspects to reading that aren’t on your list:

    1- “rubbing off on you” – sometimes you want the tone or attitude of a work to influence the way you behave or think. While reading the lengthy book you’re engaging with this process and giving it a chance of affecting you. For instance, the “classics” from Ancient Greece and Rome were considered important for this (Iliad, etc)
    2- concentration training – many people simply can’t read difficult literature simply because they’ve never adapted themselves to be able to focus in that way. It’s a skill and it gets rusty with disuse. Likewise, with practice you can use that sustained linear concentration to think about any arbitrary subject. In short- reading in a fragmented way fragments our minds
    3- ritual- the western world lacks ritual compared to the eastern world. However, for many of us the book is more than a utility item. It has a sacred-like aspect to it. Sitting down to read helps us to feel part of a valuable and old intellectual tradition, and let’s us take part in “the great conversation” as Mortimer Adler would put it. I think there’s real if intangible value in this
    4- unloads working memory- by covering a topic relatively slowly you have time to fully absorb it piece by piece. Summaries require you to mash it all in at once, which as others have remarked can result in very poor recall later on. The slow pace can actually help you to learn more

    To test it for strict functionality however, you could simply do 2 parallel learning projects with each using a different strategy. Then find some way to objectively compare. Tricky but doable

    Best,
    Nate

  • Pedro Marcelino

    I usually go for long reads, but after reading this article, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good strategy to:

    1) Start by book summaries and reviews. This would give us a sense of the main problems and ideas discussed in the book. A little bit like described by Tyler Cowen but in a faster way.
    2) Go for the long read. Now we have a background of the book and it will be easier to follow the author’s line of reasoning.

    That’s something I’ll test!

  • Ville

    I think reading summaries is fine, but I still prefer skimming through the actual book, if I can. I borrow a lot of books from the library, but rarely read one from cover to cover.

  • Nice post! I think the two options are not mutually exclusive. Theory 1 certainly apply to me as I love reading full books for the deep reflections and enjoyment I have while doing it. At the same time, I love the ability to find quick insights reading book summaries. The biggest problem is actually remember to act on the wisdom. For book summaries I really recommend Blinkist http://jump.blinkist.com/SHSs (this is an affiliate link). It is relatively cheap and offers a good mobile experience. I usually read summaries when I am travelling or when I have a short break. Instead of opening Facebook or quickly check the emails, I try to force myself to a summary first. Since I joined few months, I read more then 100 summaries. If I read a summary that is super exciting and I fell I can highlight every single sentence… this is for me a good indication that I must buy the book and fully read it.

  • Sally An

    I found book summary website such as blinkist.com a great help because most non-fiction books offer limited value but needs long time to read through. This website makes it possible to get the valued ideas out of many books without requiring the time to read through each book, the ‘productivity’ increased by hundred folds!

  • Dane Dormio

    I see no reason for these to be mutually exclusive. It seems to me that excluding either summaries or complete books from one’s reading list would be a limitation. I would expect the value of reading an entire book vs a summary to vary from person to person and book to book. The fact that some people pay money for book summaries indicates that they provide value to those people.

  • Today

    I think it depends on the purpose of reading and your overall approach to exploiting knowledge you gain.

    If you’re going for specialization or peak expertise, I think it makes more sense to go in detail and go deeper into each book.

    If you’re looking to be a creative by combining many things together, I think it makes more sense to get a wider breadth of knowledge so that you can find interesting intersections.

  • Doug Washabaugh

    For books that I think are truly worth understanding, I prefer to read them once, then read them a second time to produce my own summary, then go back and read my summary over time. I prefer my summary over someone else’s summary because my summary contains points that are relevant to my understanding, and therefore stick better. Sometimes books have multiple examples to illustrate a point, and how does the author know the example that will stick for me?

  • Leopold

    I think it’s worth going deep with some things, so you know what going deep is like. When you read entire books, footnotes and all, and check out its antecedents and the reactions it provokes in the (subject) community, you get an appreciation for the nuances, or rather, an appreciation of the fact that there are nuances. If you only read summaries you never realise what ideological and methodological controversies are bubbling away just below the surface. If you sometimes go deep, sometimes just read summaries, then even when you’re skimming, you take it for granted that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. I know you read Slatestarcodex, and for me, this is the big takeaway of a lot of the writing there.

  • Mohammed Al-Alwan

    i think summaries are good in specific situations where your an expert in that subject matter.however, if you are not then reading the original book is a must.For example, i am a professional investor and i have read hundreds of books on investing and at this stage in my learning curve its rare that the new books i read in investing add any incremental value .As result,reading summaries may be enough.but , imagine i want to learn about marketing and i am not expert in that area i don’t think i will really learn much by reading summaries.

  • Roger Williams

    Theory #4: Reading fewer works in depth builds different skills than reading many works in summary.

    Reading hard books is an exercise that builds strong thinking. It is similar to how heavy weights build muscle. This strength can then be used to do a wide variety of intellectual work.

    Reading summaries of hard books is an activity that increases awareness to new ideas. Without a strong foundation to assimilate these thoughts into, they will only be retained on their surface. This reduces their value.

    My personal approach is to structure my attention as follows (YMMV):
    – Read from whole books daily, and take good notes on ideas that arise
    – Find smart blogs (like this one!) and follow them to be exposed to new ideas efficiently. When an interesting idea pops up, add relevant books to your pile.
    – Avoid the news entirely and let your blog network and/or friends let you know of anything important.

  • Marvin John Towler

    When I was in high school and college I would read Cliff’s Notes. In graduate school it was “The Law in a Nutshell” series. Now I read to learn. I don’t read summaries and I re-read a few texts each year.

  • Tiara

    I like to read both the summaries and the book. I read a book to get an understanding of what’s going on. The summary is just for clarification of the main points in the book. I agree with Roger Williams.
    Although, I think his approach is good it is bit hard to follow, at least for it is. I try to follow through with this approach and I fail. Overall, I think it depends on the person and their understanding of knowledge.rr

  • Tiara

    I like your approach . How are you able to follow through with ? Please help.

  • Scott Young

    I tend to agree. I like the differential skills theory–reading long and reading broad have different tradeoffs so it’s good to do both.

  • Caro

    A question: Does this kind of summary (http://www.deconstructingexcellence.com/the-shallows-summary/) qualifies in the matter of summary reading vs full book reading? If yes, then I see reading this kind of summary as a full *intro* to reading the full book later. Because it is so relevant, you want to know what the summary might have been missing. imho then: the more summaries reading I will be doing, the more new books I will be reading. Then only the matter of full time reading capacity is left untouched…

  • I tried doing that but I failed miserably… I love owing the books and highlight things…. I even tried to join a subscription service that gives me full access to many books to save money and do a more optimised reading… I ended up reading less and not enjoy reading… so I come back to buy books for technical content or read book summaries on Blinkist first http://jump.blinkist.com/SHSs (affiliate link) and later buy the books if I am interested…. Blinkist allows me to highlight things, synchronise them on Evernote and I can’t live without it… I can’t highlight books I borrow from the library unfortunately 🙂

  • Thomas Lucero

    It depends on the material. Some material doesn’t summarize easily, if at all. Some material has no/poor written summaries. Some material is important enough to me that I need to know it in great detail. Some books I read for pleasure. On the other hand: Cliff Notes got me through high school. I can’t read everything published – far too much material to even read the best of the best. Some material is better in summary form – for me, economics books often seem written by the pound. Some books are written for readers who need more examples, more detail, etc. before they grasp the concepts.

  • Ville

    yes, that´s the problem with library books. If I find an especially interesting
    book, I may buy it, too, and sometimes even read it. But I guess you could make separate
    notes without highlighting on the book itself, or scan parts of it, like
    most of us did when we were students and couldn’t afford to buy all those expensive textbooks.

  • Yes, absolutely. It is a bit less practical but it is certainly possible. One of the advantage of writing the note yourself is that it can helps to remember the ideas better.

  • I read the whole book when I really want to know what it contains (useful non-fiction) or when I enjoy it (interesting non-fiction and guilty pleasure fiction). I read book summaries because I like being able to recognize literary/pop-culture references, but lots of books are boring or too full of fluff (the former: pre-20th century fiction/classic literature that I found unenjoyable. The latter: some business/self-help/pop-science books that really only have one main idea). I find this provides a good balance of deep concentration and a broad knowledge base.

  • fineline

    I’ve encountered the same dilemma when reading articles or books for classes. I always prefer to read the full book/article even if that means reading quickly, because I often learn valuable or interesting concepts that are peripheral to the author’s main point and can be absent in summaries. It depends on what you are reading for. If you are reading for a skill or explanation of a concept/method, watch a video or skim a reputable blog post. If you are reading for intellectual/personal development, read a book.

    My opinion prob also stems from the fact that I read for the writing style as much as for the content.

  • Scott Young

    True–I simply claimed that they didn’t without much evidence.

    However, I see a lot of people, such as Ryan Holiday, advocating for longer, deep reads and eschewing the kind of summaries I suggested. But when I go through the analysis it seems like summaries make a better case than I had realized.

  • I’m definitely seeing that, too. Ryan Holiday is a great example, actually.

    He’s a strong advocate for long reads, and that’s likely where he spends most of his time, but I haven’t seen evidence of him totally eschewing summaries. In fact he’s on record as also advocating doing research before diving into a long or difficult read, which includes checking out reviews and likely summaries as well.

    I agree with your conclusion that summaries make a good case. As with anything, the quality of the summary is paramount (and what you do with the information from it). For instance, comparing something like Philosopher’s Notes to your garden variety Blinkist summary, you tend to see a large difference in quality.

  • Ryan Stein

    I also found that I like to read the full book as I feel like I get the whole picture. I will say that I tend to speed read when I come to sections that are too dry or do not pertain to something that I have a strong desire to understand. I do appreciate your thoughts on why you think long reading is beneficial. I think there is something to be said about being able to stick to reading a book in a world where we try to say everything in 140 characters or less.

    Great job, Scott!

    Ryan
    http://www.rysteinonline.com

  • Silenthunder42

    Great post. Most arguments have already been brought up in the comments, so I just wanted to add one more, in favour of reading in-dept non-fiction books for us who wish to acquire applicable knowledge: Summaries often provide an overview of conclusions/statements and only mention a fraction or less, to how the writer came to that conclusion. The “road” to that conclusion, I often find just as, or even more important. The reasoning behind the main statements, can actually help you think along to agree or disagree with the statements – as this can also show it flaws. The nuances or subtleties can be found in those arguments, instead of the summaries.

  • Caro

    An out of the b(ox)ook differential question, if I may: What is your stand on reading Transcripts in lieu of watching Videos as for getting to the sheer informative contents? (Provided one is a fast reader). Many thanks, dear Scott and everyone here.

  • Kevin Bourque

    I agree with this view specifically as it applies to professional or career development. Researchers spend a lot of time reviewing articles and papers in journals, but they can’t read them all. So they resort to summaries, executive summaries and other methods (including other journals which summarize research). By getting a broad overview of a field, you can then choose which specific articles/papers to deep dive into.
    Professionals and managers can benefit similarly by using book summaries. 800-CEO-READ and ChangeThis manifestos are offer an engaging way to review a wide swath of management books/research, not eliminating the need to read in full certain books.

  • Arthur Mustafin

    For me, summaries vs books is not a question. Finding a good book is. Our main value is a time, and we should invest it properly. I prefer to use summaries as a second filter before starting investing time in reading.

    Ratings + summaries + smart recommendations (e.g. Scott 🙂 = Reading list

    Sometimes I read summaries to find ideas that I may miss or didn’t understand.

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