Do you blog or want to blog about nonfiction books you’ve read? If so, do you lean more towards summarizing their content or providing your commentary/reactions to the book? How do you find that balance? There are many ways to go about this depending on your purpose as well as your personal style. I have an approach that works for me which I’ll share. I tend to lean towards summarizing over commentary, largely due to my goals when I blog about books:
- To share the major insights of the book with others
- To sharpen my understanding of the main concepts by articulating them
- To set down my thoughts on the book for (my own) future reference
Given these goals, I essentially want to describe the book’s major points and then share my thoughts about them. Summarizing does not mean merely repeating words as they are strung together by the author–it is an act of synthesis, which requires absorbing the ideas and then formulating them in a condensed way. Here are the principles I follow:
1. Summarize the main points of the book in bullet list form. After introducing the book (perhaps with some context of the subject or bio of the author), it can be hard to know where to start: describe the structure of the book, one’s overall impressions, the author’s tone or approach, strengths and weaknesses? Well, when talking with someone who just read a non-fiction book, you might ask them what the main claims or conclusions were that the author was trying to make. (With fiction, you might ask ‘what did you think of the book?’). Thus, as soon as possible after a brief intro, present a bullet list of the main points of the book. What I find with many nonfiction books (especially those that espouse new ideas) is that they have concepts that can be contextualized, laid out, and supported in 30 to 50 pages, but have to be expanded to 200+ pages to fill a book. That means “filler” such as: splitting up related ideas, multiplying the number of stories or supporting examples, foraging into related tangential areas, etc. Thus, some serious condensation is usually in order. If you can pull out the structural skeleton of the book’s main argument (which may or may not closely resemble part of the table of contents), then you have a valuable summary that you will want to remember and convey to others.
As an example of utilizing bullet points, in my summary of Nudge, Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth, and Happiness, I was delighted by the concept of nudges, but there were numerous examples of nudges strewn across the book. After I described the main concept of what a nudge was, I listed the most compelling examples of nudges (indicating their page numbers for reference). Also, because I felt there were commonalities among the examples, I even created sub-categories of nudge types, something that was not in the book. The point with bullets is to express the main “takeaways” in as clear and concise a way as possible, while still conveying the important nuances of the concepts.
2. Don’t feel the need to cover everything, but expand on areas of interest. A corollary of the first point is that you shouldn’t feel the need to discuss every idea in the book, just because it is there. Write about what you find most interesting. Certainly if there are major points, try to cover them, but then after that choose the areas you want to expand upon or comment on further. It is this additional commentary that is often most useful to readers, as it is unique to each reviewer. You might ask what type of commentary would be most interesting? Here are some questions that can give you some ideas:
- If the idea is new or unexpected, why so?
- What is your reaction to the idea? Why?
- How clearly is the idea articulated?
- How well is the idea supported?
- What might be some implications of the idea (stated in the book or not)?
As an example of selectively focusing on content, in my summary of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, I emphasized the beginning of the book, which covers the over-arching metaphor of ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ because I thought it was the most robust, relevant, and memorable theme developed in the book, that actually spanned a wide range of findings in cognitive psychology. I discussed Prospect Theory only slightly (for which Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics), and did not talk about the later chapters on remembered/experienced happiness, which I felt were less important, at all.
3. Try to develop new examples to illustrate the concepts. Usually authors support or illustrate their main points with good examples, some of them even reaching canonical status (such as in Nudge, the drastic behavioral effect you get when you change 401K enrollment or organ donor status from an opt-in to an opt-out default). If there are great examples in the book that really help to illustrate the points, then select a couple and briefly describe them. This can be a slippery slope, however, because if you give too many examples, you may end up repeating a lot of the content of the book–and if readers are interested in more examples, they can (and should) pick up the book. Thus, try to be brief with the supplied examples. Also, it is best to try to come up with your own examples to illustrate a point, if you can think of something more relevant. By coming up with your own examples or applications, you are in fact testing the richness of an idea by further applying it. It also helps ensure that you fully grasp the concepts. New examples are also an extra bonus for readers who have already read the book.
As an example, in my summary of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, I was fascinated by many of the observations Pinker made about how we’ve designed language to provide us utility. Thus, I created my own example sentence of how we can specify aspect (the timing of when things happen) to convey causality and human motivation: “When I told him that his grandmother’s Tiffany-esque lamp was likely worthless, his eyes started to well up and he told me about his 10-year struggle with gambling…”. Creating your own examples, when warranted, allows you to creatively engage in the line of thinking that the author is trying to cultivate.
4. Do a little extra research in order to understand different perspectives. When summarizing books from the standpoint of a non-expert, you want to try to engage the author’s ideas on their own terms as fully as possible before engaging in evaluation and critique. It is also incumbent on a commentator to do a little due diligence about the book and author. This is largely to avoid a situation where you may get a distorted view of the subject from that author, for example, when they present something as obvious when it is in fact controversial, or to see the reactions to the author’s work from others in the field.
As an example, when I wrote about Pinker’s The Language Instinct, it seemed to me that his case that humans have an innate mechanism that helps us to acquire language was a strong one. However, I wouldn’t have known from the book that this ‘innateness’ hypothesis is highly contested within linguistics. Thus in my post, I briefly noted that this idea was controversial, but I also did not feel the need to elaborate further or to venture an opinion on the matter.
Following these simple rules, I was able to blog about books I enjoyed immensely in a way that I felt was informative and had fidelity to the books. Though the structure of the reviews were simple, the writing process took longer than I expected because in the process of summarizing the ideas, I had to go back and grapple with them further to really articulate them well. Most satisfying were when I was able to create new relevant categories or illustrations, a small contribution to the conversation.
There will probably be many reviews of good books, so your review should fulfill your purposes, reflect your style, and take its place as a thread in the large tapestry of conversation about the book that is taking place in cyberspace.