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Save time with 15-minute book summaries
New services provide quick intros to authors' ideas
Shortform1 gives you concise summaries of books you haven’t yet had time to read. In 15 minutes you can glean a book’s main ideas, then decide whether to read it in full. I like using it to review books I’ve read and forgotten about. Shortform covers 30+ genres but specializes in business, tech, and self-improvement. I appreciate its thorough, smart summaries that weave in ideas from related books. Competitors summarize many more books, though, with more visually engaging apps. Read on for Shortform’s strengths and limitations, and a few notable alternatives.
Thankfully the write-ups aren’t automated. Shortform hires intelligent humans to read and reflect on these books. The summaries are well-written and detailed. Each opens with a one-minute overview. Then you can dig deeper into whatever books you’re curious about. If you’re building a nonfiction reading list, this is a good starting point.
See how books relate and differ
One of the things I appreciate most about Shortform is how its summaries tie together related books. Example: I recently clicked on the summary of Chip and Dan Heath’s Decisive, which I had read several years ago. I wanted a reminder about the key ideas. I appreciated how the summary referenced other books on decision-making, from The Art of Choosing and The Paradox of Choice to Thinking in Bets and Thinking Fast and Slow. Other services focus less on showing how a book fits into the broader field of thinking. Some do better, though, at squeezing a book’s primary points onto a series of well-illustrated swipeable screens.
Short activities to apply books’ ideas
You can answer short questions Shortform supplies within its summaries to apply ideas to your own life. In the Decisive summary, for example, I was prompted to consider an upcoming decision and to analyze various considerations through the lens of the book’s frameworks. As a teacher, I appreciate this extra step to help me retain information.
You can make highlights within a summary and sync those key points to Notion or Readwise. Here’s why I love Readwise for my book and online reading highlights. I like reading summaries on my phone, but you can also read them on the Web.
Articles, not just books
In addition to book summaries, Shortform publishes short explainers on diverse topics — from cryptocurrency to psychedelics. These pieces draw on academic and media sources. But they’re not intended to be comprehensive — they’re useful as primers to help you get started on a topic.
📖 Sample: An excerpt from a Shortform summary
A World Without Email by Cal Newport
Our Current Approach to Work: The Hyperactive Hive Mind Workflow — Newport argues that most knowledge workers structure their work days around responding to unscheduled emails and instant messages rather than around the knowledge work they were hired to do. A 2019 study showed that the average employee sent and received 126 emails a day, and another study showed that employees check their instant messenger app once a minute on average and their inboxes 77 times a day. A third study indicated that many knowledge workers can only perform about an hour of uninterrupted knowledge work a day. The rest of their day is spent responding to a barrage of incoming emails and messages…”
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Small book selection
The service is still young, so the library of summaries isn’t yet robust. No subject is comprehensively covered. And because the writers work methodically to create thoughtful summaries, the production process is slow. A handful of new books are added weekly. There are many books I’d love digests for that aren’t available, both contemporary and classic. Shortform works best if you enjoy discovering new books, rather than searching for specific summaries.
The summarizers aim to position each book among others. That results, sometimes, in summaries that are a blend of summary and analysis. In summarizing A World Without Email, the team omitted a section of the book about the history of email because they decided it wasn’t crucial to the book’s primary message. I generally don’t object to these excisions, because anyone summarizing has to make such decisions. But if you prefer a straightforward section-by-section textual summary with less independent analysis and fewer external references, you might lean toward one of the alternatives below, like Headway or Uptime.
Minimalist app and site
The app and site are functional but simple. You can search for books and read summaries, but don’t expect much more. A neat audio feature means you can now listen to some of the summaries, but otherwise the app and site are basic. In comparison with the flashy visual summary apps below, Shortform is vanilla. But if you’re focused on depth of thought and analysis, the visuals may matter less.
Summaries are expensive to produce, because humans make them and it takes lots of time to read deeply and write well. So Shortform costs $24/month, though they’ve agreed to a Wonder Tools reader discount, which brings the price down to $12.97/month for an annual subscription. For some people that’s still a lot, and other options below are cheaper.
Blinkist is the best-known summary service, claiming 23 million users, with an average rating of 4.76 stars after >100,000 app store reviews. In its vast library I was able to find summaries of many of the books by Alain de Botton, one of my favorite authors. And there’s some original learning material, like an audio guide to productivity by YouTuber Rowena Tsai. Two other features I like: I can share my account free with a friend or family member. And I can send summaries straight to my Kindle. Cost: $100/year
Headway This service’s visual explainers are its strength. Tap through a series of cards for an overview of a book’s core concepts. I like that the 15-minute book summaries are broken into 10 easy-to-digest cards, with short quotes pulled out as “insights” that you can save, share or add to your notebook in the app. Note that the summaries aren’t as thorough as Shortform’s at incorporating references to other books. The 39 question onboarding online is a bit too much. Cost: $60/year
Uptime offers 5-minute “hacks” for getting a quick sense of books, podcasts, online courses, and documentaries. Like Headway, the app mixes in visuals in an appealing way, so you feel like you’re swiping through an educational Instagram, rather than reading dense text. You tap through screens just as you do on social platforms. You can switch audio on or off to listen to the summary. Occasionally a short video pops up, like a 30-second clip of author Mark Manson talking about concepts in his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Cost: $80/year
What’s your take on these summary services? Leave a comment 👇
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Transparency note: I’m experimenting with an affiliate link for Shortform in this post because I use and like the service, because doing so supports the work I’m doing for Wonder Tools, and because the link gives you, the reader, a way to try it out for free for 5 days and to save 20% off the normal subscription price if it seems useful to you. So hopefully it’s a win-win-win. I always share my own independent take, noting the benefits and drawbacks of any service I use, as I’ve done above, and I aim for full transparency.