In digging through some boxes in my basement, I made a horrifying discovery. Buried surreptitiously beneath some actual books and innocent-looking old school papers, I saw the ominous and telltale black and yellow that could only mean one thing: CliffsNotes. A whole disgusting stack of them. These were NOT mine. Perish the thought. As an English major, I had seen them, around, wasting valuable space on bookstore shelves and giving away many a literary underachiever. I think/thought they are/were dirty, and cheap, and utterly repugnant. I…would…NEVER!
But, I will confess to always having harbored a sort of perverse curiosity about what depraved atrocities could possibly lie within. And so I did something that I am very much not proud to admit. I picked one up [GASP!] and read it [DOUBLE GASP!].
I decided to start with one I had actually read (the book, that is) so I could make a fair comparison. I chose Wuthering Heights. This was my experience:
Let’s say you liked the Bahamas. And you wanted to pursue that interest. And let’s say you had two options for doing so: (1) going on vacation to the Bahamas, or (2) reading an encyclopedia entry about the Bahamas. To my way of thinking, one of those experiences is far and away more enjoyable than the other. Granted, reading the encyclopedia entry might reveal some academically significant tidbits of information about the Bahamas (e.g. when it was founded, what language they speak, currency, flora and fauna), and you could learn more and glean more data than someone who went there just for fun. Were you to write an academic paper, or take a quiz about the Bahamas, you would probably get a better grade than just a casual enthusiast. But you have taken all the joy out of the experience. Who cares what you think or know about the Bahamas if you haven’t actually experienced the Bahamas? Who wouldn’t rather go there and experience it?
Similarly, let’s say you had never eaten a chocolate bar before. But you had heard good things, and really wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Again, you have two options: (1) you can read the nutritional information on the back of a chocolate bar, or (2) you can eat a chocolate bar. Unless you are some kind of weird, chocolate-hating freak, there is only one real option here. Sure, by reading the packaging, you might know all sorts of details about triglyceride contents and shipping origins, but who cares? There is nothing as enjoyable as actually eating the chocolate (and frankly, you will probably enjoy eating the chocolate more without tainting the experience first by developing a painful awareness of exact calorie and fat content).
For me, CliffsNotes was about like this: reading the encyclopedia entry about the Bahamas/reading the nutrition information about a bar of chocolate. I will be the first to admit, I learned more about the Brontes and the conflict between nature and culture in the novel and the parlance and custom of the time than I ever could have derived from the book itself. But so what? I also derived absolutely no pleasure from reading it. Reading CliffsNotes is like reading a super concise, super boring, de-arted not even summary of the book, but a description of what the book is about. It struck me wrong, made me sick, and flew in the face of everything that art and literature represents for me.
Perhaps even more importantly, I still remember reading Wuthering Heights and other books from high school: the stories, the characters, the feelings. On the other hand, I will probably have forgotten everything I learned from this CliffsNotes reading by tomorrow. And I am sure the same is true for those kids who bought these CliffsNotes in high school/college instead of reading the actual books. You can cram some factoids and borrow other people’s essay ideas and maybe even get an “A” in an English class. I wouldn’t even call that cheating, necessarily, because anyone can do it. But you are cheating yourself out of all that is fine and good and most enjoyable about literature. If you feel the need to cram or cheat for a literature class, then I feel sorry for you indeed.
Go to the Bahamas; eat the chocolate; read the book. Anything less is unacceptable.