There is a wonderful 2012 interview with Iain McGilchrist in which he talks about leaving his life as an Oxford literary scholar to become a psychiatrist:
I love literature very much and I found that a lot of the things that I could see were very valuable were very hard to convey once one started taking the thing apart… It seemed to me that people who make works of art, whatever they might be, have gone to great trouble to make something unique which is embodied in the form that it is and not in any other form and that it transmits things that remain implicit. If you explain a joke, you lose a power of it. If you have to explain a poem you’re going to lose a bit of the power of that too. It struck me that there was two or three rather important philosophical points about a work of art, that first of all what it conveyed needed to remain implicit and when you stuck something, yanked it out of context, and stuck it into the middle of the spotlight of attention you actually changed what it was because you hadn’t found out more about what was there in the first place. It needed to be incarnate. I mean, works of art are not just disembodied, entirely abstract, conceptual things. They are embodied in the words they’re in or in paint or in stone or in musical notes or whatever it might be and much of that power and the fact that those things also affect us neurophysicologically. When you read a poem it affects your heart rate, your breathing, you feel things in your bodily frame….
The longer I read, the more I believe that the value of a book, regardless of whether it’s fiction or nonfiction or comics or poetry, is actually in the experience of turning the pages, moving from one sentence to the next, or one panel to the other. How I feel, and what I think about, and where my attention goes. This experience continues throughout the days and nights in between my reading sessions, and, if the book is any good, continues after I have finished the book.
I have noticed a proliferation of book summaries online — blog posts or even whole apps dedicated to extracting the “key insights” from books, attempts to package up the whole by reducing it down to its essentials, its main points. On the one hand, this is nothing new (see: CliffsNotes), but on the other, I think it signals the popularity of a way of reading in which books are mined for nutrients, takeaways, big ideas, etc. In this mode, books — especially nonfiction — are simply containers of “content” that can be packaged in whatever form you like.
It is my opinion that if a book’s contents can be adequately “summed up,” so that you really don’t miss anything by reading the summary, it is not actually a book worth reading. (Of course, there’s no way to tell whether a summary is adequate or not unless you have also read the book.) Also, I suspect that the harder you find it to summarize a book you have read, the more valuable it might be.
The tricky thing here is that the more summarizable the book, the easier it is to market and sell. A book proposal, for example, is simply a summary of a book that doesn’t exist yet. It is the marketing copy before the product is born.
I blame a great deal of the boring books in the world on the very process by which they are published: a summary is presented, it is purchased, the book is written, and if the final book sticks to the summary, everybody is happy.
Now, I used to be a copywriter, so I’m trained to invent summaries. It is very tempting, when I am beginning to work on a book, to start thinking in this summary form: to try to see the “big picture” and the “key ideas” in abstract first.
This is the sensible, professional way of working, but for me it is a kind of creative death, antithetical to the reason I write in the first place: to discover what I know, or discover what I don’t want to know, to invent something on the page that couldn’t exist unless I went to the page to have an experience in the first place.
To put it another way: If a book can be summarized, is it worth writing?
Maybe there’s a third path here. Maybe it’s possible to write something that is easily summarized but impossible to sum up…