The Reading App

Books are containers of information – that might be all they are to some.

Information. What’s wrong with dope and women? Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only real medium of exchange?

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

All roads lead to the Information Highway – this is nothing new. What is somewhat newer is that the loads of information have become almost incalculably huge. If information was ferried before by a series of serpentine, circuitous streams, then now its carrier resembles a sea, on which we are the travellers, aimless and overwhelmed by its suffocating ubiquity.

In the line-up of likely suspects, an accusing finger might be pointed at the ascendancy of the Internet and its technological hosts. They are the incubators of this cognitive overload, and have irreparably altered the ways in which we consume information. In a few decades’ time, hindsight may afford us the ability to pinpoint exactly when this change occurred and how it has reconstructed the cultural membrane.   

At times it can feel impossible to discriminate between valuable and worthless information. And, as readers, how are we to spend our precious free time – swimming through the mire of disinformation for anything worthwhile, or attempting to work our way through all of the hundreds of important literary works published each year? And why, when there is such a tapestry of vile pornography to be burned into our retinas instead, should we bother?

For now, we can only say with certainty that the literary world has altered. If readers haven’t yet overcome the travails of this unfamiliar landscape, reading formats and habits have somewhat adapted to this seismic cultural shift. A reader can read books all her life without setting foot in a bookshop; entire non-physical libraries exist. One of the brilliant things about the web is that it is just that – a web; interlinked and intimately connected. The lone reader struggling through a difficult section of The Waste Land, for instance, need only look to her phone for a second opinion. Reading is no longer private, but continuously communal; and literature’s most enigmatic and cryptic passages can be contextualised and decoded within seconds.

Thus we come to the inevitable criticisms of this brave new world. Engaging in this kind of discussion invariably places you in the role of some kind of curmudgeonly old Luddite, brandishing a prophetic end-of-days fist at deaf-eared youngsters taking another hit of the technological crack-pipe. I hereby revoke all claims to prophecy, but the wizened and cranky demeanour might serve.

I was introduced not long ago to Blinkist, one of the more popular of the latest techno-literati craze – the reading app. First conceived in 2012, Blinkist arrived in the UK late last year. Its aim: to bring ‘the ideas from the best nonfiction to some of the busiest people on the planet.’ And it does so by distilling whole non-fiction books into 15-minute chunks, which are available in both audio and text format. Essentially Blinkist is a summary app, an in-phone revision guide for those who have no time to read the book in the first place. So far, it boasts over 3,000 titles, adding 40 more each month for its community of 9 million subscribers.

For many of their ‘Blinks’ (their term), Blinkist has raked the lowly gutter of the self-help shelf: ‘Personal Growth and Self-Improvement’, ‘Career & Success’, and ‘Productivity & Time Management’ are among the big-hitters. But there is a foray into more traditional schools of thought; Science, Philosophy, History, and Politics all get a look-in. And it is this dabbling into more intellectual territory in which Blinkist might have the most impact.

It goes without saying that the harder books, for most people, necessitate distillation (can anyone imagine reading Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism cover-to-cover and feeling anything close to comprehension first time around?). Yet these are arguably the ones that most reward readers’ efforts. Cognitive exercise improves the functioning of that all-important grey matter – if the act of reading is stripped of any kind of critical thinking, how then, to work the brain? What stops it becoming a piece of worthless meat weighing down on our shoulders?

Perhaps the impact of the app shouldn’t be overstated. It is, after all, exclusively non-fiction that Blinkist dedicates itself to; the novel remains untouched. But the tendency of the app to summarise biographies (Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo Da Vinci all get the star treatment) might make us wonder about the future of technology such as this. Biographies are a shutter-step away from the novel on the Great Literary Chain of Being. They are certainly factual vehicles, but they are fundamentally driven by narrative. And one needs only look at Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or the sprawling roman-à-clef project of Jack Kerouac, to realise the innate homologies of the novel and autobiography.

This is not to say that Blinkist, or a similar app, is planning to ruin the fun of reading a novel. But it is certainly interesting to watch, if not with a little rectum-quaking trepidation, just where this technology may take us. What is more contentious about Blinkist is not the app itself but what it might reveal in a more general sense about literature and the wider culture.

What it indicates, I believe, is a continuing and almost pathological cultural obsession with information. This is fed to us by any means necessary and as quickly as humanly possible. Headlines seek to inform readers of news stories they have no absolutely intention of reading, online videos are offered in stop-motion previews to avoid the distress of concentrating for three minutes. And now, apps summarise books into soundbites so that we need not trouble ourselves with the nuisance of actually reading a book. Are we reaching the point at which information truly has become the only real medium of exchange?

Books are containers of information – that might be all they are to some. They offer brief glimpses of things-as-they-are (or were), and hold little handfuls of precious cultural nuclei in their pages. But what a book tells us needn’t be the endgame: there is also the how and why of a book. There is, as Richard Powers has suggested (when interviewed about his approach to writing), ‘lots going on above us and below us… the world isn’t simply taking place at eye-level view’.

If a book’s information (that is, its content) becomes paramount, we limit ourselves to a narrow understanding of its construction, and we dismiss its deeper architecture: not just what the book says, whether fiction or non-fiction, but how it says it, and the contexts which shape it and it in turn shapes.

Take Albert Camus’ The Rebel. We might, if so inclined, be able to summarise the arguments of Camus in a page of bullet-points. But we would evade the brilliant construction of his sentences, his use of allegory, the form in which the arguments are assembled, the pleasure of reaching the conclusion alongside the author, and the ways in which he engages with past works of literature.

What Blinkist suggests is that the 15-minute injection is all that is required to grasp the fundamentals of a book. The insinuation might be that an author writes a 300-page book not out of necessity, but out of indulgence. It is a callous dismissal of everything that makes literature exciting.

Nine million subscribers is not the most indicative figure for the sway this kind of app may hold over the literary future, given that the type of books it offers are more likely to appeal to casual, rather than avid, readers. And it might not be the pernicious technology I’ve painted it to be – it certainly could act as a helpful tool when read alongside the book it summarises, rather than replacing it.

Fundamentally, though, the pay-off of the app is in the currency of the twenty-first century –  the shortcut – and so it ignores any aesthetic merit a book may hold. It may be true that the future of literary study is one in which a book’s formal features become all but irrelevant. I hope not. As Don DeLillo wrote in Libra: ‘Facts are lonely things’.