For almost 20 years, SparkNotes has been providing students with easily understood summaries and analyses of works commonly found in high school and college classrooms. Before that, CliffsNotes was offering student study guides since 1958, serving as a lifesaver for students struggling to wade through and extract some sort of meaning out of their assigned Shakespeare readings. When you’re in 11th grade and you’re having an exam on “The Catcher in the Rye” in your next class, these guides can be invaluable tools in garnering enough knowledge to throw together a slipshod analysis of Holden’s hunting cap, but are they anything more than this?
Millions of students have likely passed tests (and even courses) because of these guides, but should you suggest they are equivalent to reading the actual texts to a literature professor, you’ll likely be laughed at. To suggest that reading the SparkNotes for “The Grapes of Wrath” is of equal utility as trudging through the novel’s actual about 400 pages is an insult to John Steinbeck. It suggests the entire scope and overarching significance of an author’s work can be boiled down to a series of brief paragraphs, capable of being skimmed in five minutes or less in a doctor’s waiting room or a bus ride home.
No, it does not work like that. You cannot shave off 10 hours of reading time and still expect to receive the same benefits as actually reading the book. There is a reason a classic work like “Of Human Bondage” is about 650 pages; if W. Somerset Maugham had a couple big ideas capable of being conveyed in two pages, why did he waste his time writing the other 648?
Blinkist is a growing mobile app that claims to let you read entire books in just 15 minutes or less, under the idea of providing “big ideas in small packages.” For $4.99 a month, you can receive the “big ideas” from more than 2,000 nonfiction books.
“Of Human Bondage” is not an easy or fun book to read, yet it is still, by far, the book that has had the biggest impact on my life. It wasn’t read on a Sunday afternoon before a Monday reading quiz, but instead took an entire summer to consume. Could I have gotten the main ideas and deeper meanings or significance in a couple of minutes online instead? Yes, I definitely could have, but Maugham’s ideas would have had no effect on me and would have likely been forgotten later that week.
The impact that Maugham’s work had on me was closely tied to the actual reading itself. Reading such a novel is not a sprint, but a marathon — an often arduous journey through a dense and sometimes abstruse work. Somewhere, however, over those 650 pages, the protagonist’s, Philip Carey, story slowly becomes your own. His struggles become your struggles, his victories yours as well, and before long, when the trials of life come hurling toward Philip, you share, and essentially mimic, his own reactions. How? Because over the last several hours of reading, you have invested your own time in exchange for temporarily living another life.
Reading such novels can be frustrating, tedious and even physically exhausting, but the side effects are nothing less than costs paid in exchange for experiencing the same epiphanies, revelations and triumphs as the characters you have loyally and enduringly followed.
Blinkist only offers summaries of nonfiction books, which often contain main ideas more easily extractable than complex fiction. Despite this, I still believe such a service detracts from the works themselves, in the same way that SparkNotes or CliffsNotes does. Cutting out 95 percent of a book and releasing a hyperconcentrated “big idea” is only a hedonic shortcut to the end goal of reading itself. It slices out the actual experience, leaving only crumbs of “big ideas” needing to be assembled, and drains the fun out of reading a book, ultimately defeating its own purpose in the process.
Andrew Hall is a UF management senior. His column appears on Fridays.