BOOKS
12/11/2014 09:46 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

Blinkist Reading App To Launch Audio Versions Of Condensed Nonfiction Books

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What’s the worst part of reading nonfiction? Is it having to sit through an entire, exhausting book? Is it having to look at words with your eyes? Maybe both of those obstacles leave you daunted. Blinkist is here to help.

The German startup first brought its app to the American market last year, offering bite-sized distillations of nonfiction books for time-crunched readers. Broken down into short sections called “blinks,” each book’s summary only takes around 15 minutes to read.

Now, Blinkist is going multimedia -- the company is launching an audio version for readers who want a hands-free, eyes-free source of factoids from popular publications. The Blinkist audio editions will also clock in at 15 minutes per book. You can “read” Freakonomics, Outliers and A Brief History of Time in the space of a 45-minute commute -- imagine what you could do on the commute home. What’s not to like?

The startup touts their audio blinks as another solution for an age in which reading is on the decline, citing the average amount of time per day Americans spend reading (19 minutes) versus watching TV (2.8 hours). “Now, with the introduction of audio to the Blinkist app, it’s even less effort for users to fit more reading and learning into their days,” the press release argues.

Of course, the further the activity gets from reading a book, the harder it is to comfortably describe using Blinkist as “reading.” Does listening to nuggets of curated info drawn from popular nonfiction books qualify as reading? Is it really any different from listening to a podcast or radio show? Similarly, is scrolling through “blinks” of data from the book any more substantial reading than 15 minutes of standard web article browsing?

Blinkist cofounder Holger Seim says yes. Well, sort of. Other forms of media, such as radio and podcasts, he argued in an email, don’t allow users to “continuously consume key ideas of a particular book they might have heard about and want to know more about.” The central takeaways of the book, not the act of reading or the digestion of the complex ideas throughout the text, are the key.

Proponents of in-depth reading may question whether this sort of highly pared-down insight from a book can offer real learning or intellectual benefit, given that it strips the “takeaways” of the work from context and eliminates the patient work of synthesis needed to read and comprehend a full book. Moreover, though data on reading methods is inconclusive overall, studies have suggested that both listening to audiobooks and screen reading can lead to poorer comprehension and memory retention, especially in the long-term. Without the ability to mentally map facts onto the page where they appeared, or to easily scan ahead or circle back in the text, it appears to be more difficult for readers to process the knowledge being imparted and commit it solidly to memory. Reading on a small screen and removing helpful context seem likely to have similar effects, as experts in the field have suggested.

But Seim suggested Blinkist doesn’t need to carry all the benefits of reading a full book to be an asset to book-lovers. By giving a brief teaser of full-length books, the app could help users determine which ones they might want to sit down with and read the old-fashioned way. Seim pointed to an internal survey of users which showed 50 percent claimed to use Blinkist to find new books to read in full. "Forty-two percent state that Blinkist helps them to read more books again," he noted. Only 9 percent claimed to use the app to read fewer full books.

Even if readers just use the summaries as quick shots of knowledge rather than as book discovery avenues, this could just mean they’re enriching otherwise lost time -- while driving, exercising, or doing chores -- rather than replacing real reading with the app. As for the learning efficacy of the app, Seim says Blinkist plans to target this area for study in the coming year. For an app geared toward efficient continuing education, solid data on whether education actually occurs will be vital. In the meantime, however, while it's hard to swallow that we're living in a time when books can be repackaged as 15-minute soundbite packages to listen to on the treadmill, let's remember the positive: Any service that encourages us to discover and consider reading more books is a plus for publishing.

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