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Off the shelf: Is brevity the soul of wit?

Published : Jun 29, 2017, 5:35 am IST
Updated : Jun 29, 2017, 5:36 am IST

Technology is helping change the way the new generation reads. Blinkist app offers the wisdom of books — non-fiction — in distilled form.

The condensed-reading idea on apps is appealing to time-starved readers, but raising the heckles of the traditional bookworms.
 The condensed-reading idea on apps is appealing to time-starved readers, but raising the heckles of the traditional bookworms.

Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which paper burns, was the name of a 1966 dystopian sci-fi film about a controlled society in an oppressive future in which a fireman’s duty is to burn all literature. Out of curiosity, the fireman starts reading a book or two before burning it and stumbles upon the sheer pleasure of reading and joins people who live as book fugitives, memorising the text so literature could survive. The love of books and reading was never better portrayed.

While scare scenarios are the specialty of sci-fi writers, the reality today is not the absence of books or the need to restart the oral tradition of Vedic times to keep alive texts. In fact, there is a profusion of books and the real problem of the future would be to get people to actually read them.

We are living in an age in which the Internet looms large as the biggest threat to the book-reading tradition. However, it’s not all doom and gloom there either as the Internet also supports the electronic reading revolution in which the Kindle reader and similar devices are prominent.

Observers say attention spans are shrinking the fastest and the gizmos and gadgets are not helping either. But there is light at the end of the tunnel as reading is an equally pleasurable task on screens that are getting easier on the eye.

Also, technology is helping change the way the new generation reads. Take, for instance, the Blinkist app, which offers the wisdom of books — non-fiction — in distilled form. The app claims more than two million customers already for what is the fast-food of reading.

“Specialists, writers and editors of the Blinkis team identify key ideas of selected books and transform them into smart, useful summaries of insights we lovingly polish and refine until they are nothing but the absolute most essential elements of the writer’s main ideas.”

Sounds good advertising copy for a team of people determined to be the eyes and minds of busy people! Those who have less time to read must be fed the condensed distillate. But, thank God, they do not do this to fiction. Imagine condensing Shakespeare’s plays, Milton’s verses, or Wordsworth’s poems!

“This is exactly what literature didn’t need! It’s meant to be pondered over and experienced at leisure and not consumed in byte sized capsules!” says an enraged reader rather prone to buying books.  What better way to while away quality time than with a book under a tree by a brook in an idyllic world in which Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, makes so much sense.

But how would the same person react to the Blinkist method and its audio versions of their books-in-blinks?

“If you don’t have time, don’t read! Audio books tried to do this and failed,” the reader in us pleads.

Well, what about the busy person whose only relatively free time is during the commute and who finds some meaning in playing an audio book while driving to work?

Even in a somewhat predictable future, audio and video will replace the physical book. The cynic in us would say it’s not possible to enjoy a classic even if Sir Alec Guinness were to read it out, the diction perfect, and the nuances dripping in every word and phrase. But our anguish would be that of a generation which imbibed a tradition of reading books. What about GenNext who effectively get only about 19 minutes a day to read amid busy lives in a mad race to success in the modern world? For them, Blinkist and its like might just be it, especially when it comes to reading and assimilating the core of business principles, the key to marketing techniques, self-improvement literature and so on.

But for those of us who were young eons ago, the book is so alluring a prospect as to trump everything else.

“A book? O rare one, Be not, as is our fangled world, A garment nobler than it covers”, wrote the Bard of Avon.

You could read that on parchment, paper, on an app on a device and savour it and be equally mystified by its depth even in brevity. Or, consider — “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image, but thee who destroys a good book, kills reason its self… Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life”. That was John Milton.

But let not the makers of reading apps take it amiss as they plot the new world.

Tags: blinkist app, gennext, audio book