Why you should care

Because it’s like SparkNotes for your phone.

Ah, reading. What a quaint thing of the past, like memorizing phone numbers or wearing a corset. Sure, you have that 400-page tome on your bookshelf to impress guests. And there’s that book your best friend and your holier-than-thou colleague have recommended. But what if you can’t find the time to turn the pages but still want to know what lies within?

Welcome to the app Blinkist. It takes nonfiction books and distills them down to their main points so that you get the gist: nothing more, nothing less. Think of it as SparkNotes for adults. Akin to Lumosity, this phone app caters to “lifelong learners,” says Holger Seim, CEO and founder of the Berlin-based company. Don’t know much about management psychology, the necessities for a successful startup or how to perform under pressure? With this app you get the key points in a few minutes. For $50, subscribers can select snippets from more than 1,000 books. A premium subscription for $80 offers audio versions of the book summaries — good for drivers and people with dirty hands. There’s also a free trial service. The summaries are written by experts — 100 Ph.D.s, coaches, journalists and consultants — who choose the most compelling examples and key points from 300-plus-page “I’ll get to this later” books. How do they select what to summarize? By culling from best-seller lists, recommendations from experts and user requests.

Some use the app to become better conversationalists.

Mainly people “blink” to discover the books they want to read fully, Seim says. Others use the service to get quick high-level hits on specific subjects that apply to their everyday life, like a work problem or finances. Some use the app to become better conversationalists (hint: they’re probably the ones at dinner parties throwing out Marx quotes or facts about the history of genomics). The app was inspired in 2012 when Seim and his co-founders found that between work and socializing, people don’t have the bandwidth for postgraduation book learning. Nonfiction books often use pages of examples to support the same point, which isn’t terribly efficient for the person who wants to know now. Hell, this article could probably be a 10-word blink. And more people are reading on the go, preferring to read on their “little screens,” Seim says, reflecting the trend that Americans spend 2.8 hours a day looking at their phones, according to venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ 2015 Internet trends report.

Of course, the app isn’t perfect. The summaries are only translated into English and German, which neglects a whole lot of the world’s population. And summaries only come from books already in those languages. Plus, the writing can be pretty flat — since “time-saving is No. 1,” Seim says, they can’t always be entertaining. The concept may not translate well for biographies or autobiographies, either, according to Laura Roberts, leader of the Nonfiction Authors Association’s San Diego chapter. “You’d want to hear more of the details of the story,” she says.

Even so, what could a world of Blinkist users look like? A space where people are reading and learning more, and spending time on mobile devices “more meaningfully than checking Facebook feeds or reading the news that’s repeating itself,” Seim says. You can Blink now.

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