Here’s a service that provides book summaries. Not sure what I think about it. I’ll make several observations:
1) I’m at least aesthetically repulsed by the idea, while recognizing its practical benefit. Maybe that’s just the bibliophile in me.
2) The site does do some other things. It provides some book reviews, author interviews and links to author blogs, but it isn’t clear to me how the whole thing is integrated. Most of these functions exist elsewhere, so they seem a bit of duplication.
2) I have tended to use good book reviews to do similar things (give me a sense of main points of boks). And there are tools like Books & Culture and The New York Review of Books that perform a similar function and expose me to a broader range of books and some analysis of the books. Granted the service described here offers summaries rather than reviews, but I think that reviews are arguably more valuable. I want some evaluative help, especially if I can’t get into the details and personally evaluate the quality of writing and argument. If the goal is to decide what books to buy, I really feel reviews are more helpful. But that seems to be one of the things that the summaries are meant to help me do.
3) I’m a bit concerned about the limited number of books and their limited perspective. What if I don’t want these books? What if they don’t interact with a broad enough range of materials? I note that all three endorsements come from the Reformed direction, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if it is a service oriented to quality Reformed books, then I think it should be more transparent. That was my first thought. When I explored a bit more (board of reference, theological commitments) it became clear that my initial sense was correct; this is a Reformed focused site with a very detailed theological agenda. Not that there is anything wrong with that (it’s my general orientation) – but I do wonder if this limits the reach of the service and limits its effectiveness because it will focus on a narrow range of books. Beyond that, there’s no clear indication of how books are selected, who does the summaries and what the criteria are for summaries, how close summaries are provided to the time of publication, etc. I wonder about stuff like that.
4) Or to expand and redirect the last point, if I read 5 ten page summaries each month, perhaps I could read a good chunk of another book (with a bit of skimming and selectivity). I wonder if that isn’t more intellectually robust. Or if something is lost in reading a summary rather than the whole book (and if not – why don’t people just write summaries?). Losing the texture of the argument means it is hard to evaluate and undercuts critical thinking. Is this another way to thin out deep evangelical thought? Is this more a magnification of efficiency (that American ideal) than really promoting thought and reflection? Maybe I need to try it out and see what I think about these points.
5) Let me provide a more problematic, though very imperfect analogy. We’re very busy and it’s hard to read the Bible – so let’s provide a service that summarizes the daily Bible readings so you can read through the Bible in a year. I know this isn’t the purpose of the service, but our response says something about how we think about reading texts that is probably relevant. The big point – reading a summary is not reading a book. This may not be the right way to accomplish the goal the service admirably hopes to accomplish.
6) Rather than a fee-based service, if this is such a good idea, why not a crowd-sourced version? It would be cheaper and available to more people. It could be funded by links to the books that are summarized (for the Amazon referral fee; which the site uses in addition to subscription fees) or by a tip jar. It could include links to helpful reviews alongside the summary – or when they become available – so that people would engage the books rather than just absorb a summary. Not quite a million dollar idea, but certainly a plausible business model. All you’d need is about 50 or so scholars to promise to read a book and prepare a summary once a year and you’re ready to go. It sounds tempting….
Despite all these reservations, I’m a bit tempted – but it’s that ambivalent kind of temptation.