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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.