Lucas Brenner » Articles » Book Summaries Are Not Always Useful

The promise of platforms like Blinkist or Shortform is that they let you can read more books in less time and thus let you acquire more knowledge. However, such summarization is not useful for every type of book – sometimes, you even risk of misunderstanding the content.

Of course, as with all models and theories, there are exceptions to this classification of nonfiction books. Moreover, assigning a book to a particular category says nothing about the quality of the work. No category is objectively “better” or “worse” than another.

The Tree

You can think of the various books on a subject as a tree. The entire tree itself describes the main topic that the non-fiction books deal with. Usually, these topics are very broad and there are numerous subtopics.

Philosophy, for example, would be one such tree.

The Trunk

The trunk describes the basic literature that are essential for a correct understanding of a certain topic. Usually, these books are classics because they are often cited, extensive, and in most cases written by recognized experts.

If possible, you should read these books in their entirety yourself, as they contain numerous different ideas and models that cannot be summarized well – or well enough. While there are numerous summaries of these books, few do justice to the complexity of their content.

In the ideal Tree Book, the reader is given an overview of all the subjects of the tree.

This overview does not necessarily go into detail, but having such a framework gives a better understanding of the subject matter in general and allows for more detailed information to be added later.

For example, in my example, the trunk of the tree of philosophy would be a book about the various philosophical schools.

The Branch

A Branch Book deals with a subtopic in more detail. The further you go from the trunk of the tree, the more detailed the topics become.

Branch Books are easy to summarize and to skim because they usually deal with only a few ideas. You won't find big concepts or theories here. Most nonfiction books fall into this category.

These books are characterized by the fact that they are usually shorter than Trunk Books and that they elaborate on a particular idea with detailed explanations and examples.

There is usually some sort of conclusion at the end that summarizes the main points and arguments. Therefore, when skimming a Branch Book, one should always read the table of contents, the conclusions of each chapter, and the conclusion at the end.

For example, a book on Stoicism would be the branch of the trunk of philosophical schools. This trunk, in turn, belongs to the tree of philosophy.

The Leaves

The leaves of a tree are no longer books, but shorter text forms such as essays, blog articles, or social media posts. They do not take long to read and are comparatively easy to understand, but they represent only a very limited part of the whole topic.

Usually there are no summaries for these texts because the original sources are already very short. However, especially for blog articles or essays, there is usually a short conclusion at the end of the article or the most important points are summarized as keywords.

However, there is a risk that the information is taken out of context or is simply wrong. Since books are usually of higher quality than blog articles, for example, due to elaborate proofreading and editing, it can happen that the latter present information incorrectly or only partially correctly. That's why you should take these types of texts with a grain of salt and always compare them with other sources. Moreover, it is important to remember that Leaf Texts usually reflect the views and opinions of their authors.

An article about a principle of Stoicism is a leaf on the branch of Stoicism, which belongs to the trunk of philosophical schools and is part of the tree of philosophy.

Are Book Summaries Good or Bad?

This question cannot be answered unambiguously. For Trunk Books, summaries are not ideal because they cannot adequately represent the complexity of these works. You can read these books multiple times if you want to immerse yourself deeper in the topic.

However, for branch books or Leaf Texts, summaries are ideal for saving time and acquiring knowledge faster. In general, of course, you should make sure that the summaries are of high quality. In addition, you should organize the summaries well.

Also, it can be helpful to read through several people's notes on a book to get a balanced view.

By classifying the non-fiction books you read or want to read into these categories, you can get a better overview of a topic, read and learn faster, and most importantly, prevent misconceptions about a topic.