The summer reading for my senior-year A.P. psych class was Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the bestseller all about the “power of thinking without thinking”—both its triumphs (fine “snap” judgments) and its troubles (crude stereotypes). I blazed through it. Regrettably, the same could not be said of my required fiction reading in A.P. English. For these, CliffsNotes was the answer. (No, I didn’t get an A.)
But I did in psych. Blink stoked my interest in the subject, and prompted me to find other non-fiction books that could make me go, “That’s interesting!” Those moments of immersion—an escape from what the late sociologist Harold Garfinkel called the “routinized taken-for-granted world of everyday life”—can be addicting. But once you’re a non-student, it’s hard to find these books and carve out the time to read them.
That’s where apps like Blinkist—a pithy and audible kind of CliffsNotes—come in. You don’t have to spend the better part of an afternoon browsing bookshelves and flipping through pages of whatever catches your eye, searching for some sign that it’s worth the purchase. Instead, listen to (or read) distillations—or “blinks”—created by the Blinkist staff. Their library of thousands of books, including Blink, will either satisfy your curiosity, saving you money and time, or stoke it further, prompting an informed purchase (and perhaps helping to fulfill that New Years resolution to read more).
In How to Read a Book, the philosopher-academic pair Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren warn of the vice of reading too much too thinly, writing, “The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages. They are all sophomores.” The point of Blinkist is to avoid becoming sophomoric.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to use Blinkist. You’ll still want to do some reading, for one thing. In a 2013 study researchers found that subjects listening to three roughly 1,800-word passages from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (also on Blinkist) remembered them worse, and reported them as less interesting, than when they read them silently or aloud. The reason is the greater tendency for the mind to wander while you’re listening as opposed to reading. A 2015 study confirmed this. (Of course, “mindless reading” is a thing, too.) “While listening to an audiobook or podcast may seem to be a convenient and appealing option,” the researchers conclude, “our findings suggest that it might be the least beneficial to learning, leading to both higher rates of mind wandering and less interest in the material.”
On the other hand, another study published the same year found that mind-wandering was associated with positive mood. And a 2016 review of the effects of mind-wandering found that the mental state led to “creativity, future planning, problem solving, and relief from boredom.”
Whether your mind wanders or not, Blinkist can help you hone in on what you need to know. And not just from recent releases, like Geoffrey West’s book Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies (read a Nautilus excerpt of it here) but also from classics, like Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Why not increase the odds of being a bit more well read this year? 2019-you might be grateful.