‘We may lose ability to think critically at all’: the book-summary apps accused of damaging authors’ sales

From The Guardian:

A tech sector dedicated to boiling things down has raised temperatures in some quarters of the publishing world

Hungry for niche knowledge to impress your colleagues? Troubled by the size of a hefty new book? Doubt your abilities to understand complex arguments? Well, today an increasingly competitive industry offers to take away these problems with one product: a book summary app.

Since these digital services first promised to boil down a title, usually a nonfiction work, a decade ago, the marketplace has become crowded. So much so that authors and publishers are concerned about the damage to sales, as well as to the habit of concentrated reading.

Some successful writers, including Amy Liptrot, also fear that apps such as Blinkist, Bookey, getAbstract and the latest, Headway, may be undermining the book trade and misrepresenting content.

Liptrot has approached her union, the Society of Authors, for advice on how to take action. She was alarmed last week to find her acclaimed 2015 memoir, The Outrun, now a film starring Saoirse Ronan, being peddled in potted form on Bookey. “It was unnerving to see a totally fictional quotation purporting to be from my book,” she told the Observer. “These apps are very anti-literary. They’re for people who want to absorb the key ideas without reading the book. I don’t mind a bland, soulless summary, but I do mind a false quotation.”

Diana Gerald, chief executive of the charity BookTrust, is also disturbed by the influence of these apps on young readers. “Book summaries can be a useful starting point. However, it goes without saying that improvements in mental health, in sparking imagination, empathy and language acquisition that reading can have, come from reading the book itself,” she said.

Writer Susie Alegre also sees lurking danger. “The trend towards apps that summarise books so that you can ‘think better’ is likely to have the opposite effect – if we don’t use our minds to reflect deeply, we may lose our ability to think critically at all,” she said, citing research which showed that our reliance on satellite navigation was already rewiring our brains and “destroying our ability to navigate the physical world”.

“Relying on summaries of big ideas might do the same for our capacity for deep thought,” added Alegre, whose forthcoming book Human Rights, Robot Wrongs: Being Human in the Age of AI is published in early May.

“AI is famously prone to hallucinations: if you read an AI-generated summary of a book, there is no guarantee that it actually reflects the content,” she said, pointing out that writers’ “already meagre income” could be destroyed by the summary-app business.

The publishing industry is also on alert. Andrew Franklin, founder director of Profile Books, understands the worry: “These apps are potentially depriving authors of income and bookshops of custom. It is quite a serious way of infringing copyright, although not technically wrong, as you are allowed to summarise a text. These apps are really just the same as the adverts that pop up offering you an effortless way to lose weight without exercise.”

The new crib sites function a little like the York Notes study guide series for British students, (or Cliffs Notes in the US), but have less analytical content and tend to compete over the niche business areas they cover.

Not all in the book world are concerned. Toby Mundy, executive director of the prestigious Baillie Gifford prize for nonfiction, wonders if these apps might prove a gateway for readers to actual books.

He said: “When people want to know about a subject, they might start with Wikipedia or a precis app, but publishing is fundamentally about voices. If you want to know about the Russian Revolution – and I mean really know – then most people will turn to Orlando Figes’s masterpiece, A People’s Tragedy, rather than a dreary textbook, because it combines authoritative scholarship with tremendous literary verve. Precis apps might disrupt certain genres, business books perhaps, but they are intrinsically anti-voice and philistine.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From Wikipedia:

CliffsNotes are a series of student study guides. The guides present and create literary and other works in pamphlet form or online. Detractors of the study guides claim they let students bypass reading the assigned literature. The company claims to promote the reading of the original work and does not view the study guides as a substitute for that reading.[1]


CliffsNotes was started by Nebraska native Clifton Hillegass in 1958.[2] He was working at Nebraska Book Company of Lincoln, Nebraska, when he met Jack Cole, the co-owner of Coles, a Toronto book business. Coles published a series of Canadian study guides called Coles Notes, and sold Hillegass the U.S. rights to the guides.

Hillegass and his wife, Catherine, started the business in their basement at 511 Eastridge Drive in Lincoln, with sixteen William Shakespeare titles. By 1964, sales reached one million Notes annually. CliffsNotes now exist for hundreds of works. The term “Cliff’s Notes” has become a proprietary eponym for similar products.

IDG Books purchased CliffsNotes in 1998 for $14.2 million.

Link to the rest at Wikipedia

PG wonders if borrowing a copy of the notes for a class from a friend who Aced the class qualifies as a terrible moral failing.

What if the class is taught by a professor who reads her/his notes, putting nearly everyone to sleep?

What if the world’s worst literature professor teaches Shakespeare?

Do all students have to consume the academic version of Brussels Sprouts from professors who have gained tenure and use their status to force starving graduate students to update their class notes?

It doesn’t take more than being sentenced to one or two boring 500-student lecture classes for many students to realize they should choose the professor instead of the subject. Why? Because, unlike Education majors, professors have never been taught to teach effectively. Teaching skills are not nearly as professionally rewarding as the publication of a paper on an abstruse topic that perhaps 15 people will read in its entirety.

PG made a big change to his college major to a subject nobody had heard of so he would be taught by one of four superb professors for 90% of his classes, with each class typically comprised of 10-12 students.

His GPA reflected his enthusiasm for these classes, but never completely recovered from the terminally miserable experience of the giant auditoriums struggling to stay awake.


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