In high school, when your English teacher assigned some impenetrable Joseph Conrad novel, you could always turn to that yellow-and-black friend in the back of the bookstore: CliffsNotes. Staying on top of the latest intelligence isn't any easier for business professionals than it was in 10th grade. And just as in high school, there's a cheat available: business-book summary services. (Sorry, director Peter Jackson isn't making movies of Clay Christensen's innovation trilogy anytime soon, so that other high-school shortcut — watching the movie — is foreclosed here.) Are you better off spending a Saturday in the bookstore skimming like hell, or are these services worth your time, money, and trouble? I endeavored to find out.
24 audio summaries/year plus 24 e-transcripts
The most detailed, thorough service I reviewed, with each book condensed into a 45-minute audio file. (Soundview's audio files average 30.) Cheesy production and sales pitches for other services are annoying.
$109-$159, depending on format
Good but not great at both capturing the ideas in a book and bringing them to life with some of the stories that illuminate them. Audio files are better than print at letting you absorb a book's lessons. Too bad they sound like bad NPR features.
$100, delivered as a PDF
Effective at condensing ideas but lacks stories and enough context to make those ideas meaningful. Best only for dry, technical works. Graphic elements summarizing the summary make me feel even dumber for subscribing.
$69.95, pick your format
Wildly varying in quality from book to book in the PDF versions I evaluated. Woefully deficient in storytelling, rendering sterile such powerfully told works as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed.
The best of these services will keep you up to date with the latest thinking, but they merely regurgitate what the book says and don't offer any interpretation. Alas, you can't sign up for a service to think for you. Ideally, I'd use one of these services to steer me toward the best books to actually read. A crazy idea, I know. Read it in a book.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.