February 3, 2012
It’s entirely possible that I’m the only person of my generation who went to public school in the United States and never bought the Cliff’s Notes version of any book I had to read for a class. To all foreigners, aliens, and people of a certain age: Cliff’s Notes were small yellow and black paperback condensed versions of classic works of literature. I understand they were called Coles Notes in Canada. They also contained brief explanatory essays on characters or theme which were perfect for memorizing and copying into the essay parts of tests. I know this probably sounds unbelievable, but I went through all of high school and college without ever reading the Cliff’s Notes of any book. For one thing I was suspicious of them. I had no idea who Cliff was. As far as I knew it was Cliff from Cheers who sat at the end of the bar next to Norm talking about how Florida oranges were so much better because they were fertilized with alligator guano. Or it could have been Cliff who sat next to me in English and always had Cliff’s Notes and was still flunking, probably because he didn’t read Cliff’s Notes.
The closest I ever came to reading a condensed version of any book in high school was when a friend of mine, as an extra-credit project, made a comic book version of Julius Caesar with his own version of the text, which actually did help me understand and appreciate that particular play a lot more. I like to think that if Shakespeare were alive today, if he ever stopped taking Kenneth Branagh to court for royalty payments, a comic book of Julius Caesar would be the sort of thing he’d write, although now it would be called a graphic novel and there would still be a Cliff’s Notes version of it. And unlike my friend’s version Caesar’s last words would probably not be, "Et tu Brute? You bunch of jerkwads."
I remember how much my teachers hated Cliff’s Notes because instead of reading four-hundred pages or so of Huckleberry Finn a kid could read the ten page condensed version and still ace the test. And in high school it didn’t matter if everyone’s answers to the essay questions sounded similar because mostly we weren’t being tested on our ability to think critically, just on our ability to regurgitate. And I doubted some of my teachers were looking that closely at our answers anyway. I’m pretty sure my high school English teacher my junior year had the memory of a goldfish. She also regularly told us that we weren’t yet knowledgeable enough to understand most of what we were reading, especially things like the poetry of William Carlos Williams, which she claimed was very complex and difficult. Occasionally I would wonder why she wasn’t teaching us what Williams’s poetry was about because that seemed like something a, well, teacher would do. I began to suspect that she’d forgotten everything she ever learned and would tell us how complicated and difficult Williams’s poetry was as her way of covering it up. This was pretty much confirmed when I went to college and learned, among other things, that Williams’s poem about a wheelbarrow and some white chickens is, on a deep metaphorical level, about a wheelbarrow and some white chickens, but that’s another story. And even though I don’t think this was her intention that particular teacher just made me want to read anything she claimed I wouldn’t be able to understand–which was pretty much everything. And for a similar reason I avoided Cliff’s Notes.
It’s true that I had this crazy dream of someday being a writer and I thought it would look better on my resume if I could honestly write down that I’d made an effort to read great works of literature and not just the condensed versions. But I also felt like Cliff’s Notes were insulting my intelligence. I never really thought they were speaking to me directly, but I felt like they were saying, "Hey kid, you’re too stupid to read The Scarlet Letter. Let me take care of it for you." And what got me thinking about this was hearing that there are now video versions of Cliff’s Notes. Because, you know, actually having to read the condensed version of a book is too hard. I remember some kids in my high school class thinking they could get by watching the movie adaptations of various books, but those of us who actually read the books and then watched the films noticed that there were often serious differences. The Grapes Of Wrath doesn’t end happily, Breakfast At Tiffany’s Ends very differently, in the book The Wizard of Oz the land of Oz is a real place, at the end of A Tale Of Two Cities Carton isn’t rescued from the guillotine by a helicopter, and don’t get me started on the number of things wrong with the Taming Of The Shrew episode of Moonlighting. So we learned to mistrust the movies. That makes me think that possibly the publishers and producers of both the Cliff’s Notes books and videos are actually engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to get kids to read great works of literature by using reverse psychology, telling kids they’re either not smart enough or to just not worry about what they’re missing. But I know it’s much more likely that the people behind Cliff’s Notes are probably really just a bunch of jerkwads.