The use of Cliff's Notes is not academically honest.
Cliff Hillegas, the 1958 founder of Cliff's Notes, died in 2001. He was 83. At his death, the Notes' Publisher, Hungry Minds, Inc., issued this eulogy:
"Cliff Hillegass created a dynamic educational tool that has helped millions and revolutionized how students learn for over 40 years. Since acquiring CliffsNotes in 1998, Hungry Minds has been proud to continue his legacy. We are deeply saddened by his passing and send our sincerest condolences to his family and colleagues."
Time reporter Jessica Reaves reported the event with, "Goodbye, Mr. Cliffs Notes," an article title that made me smile, but also made me wonder, how many readers knew of the novel that Reaves used as a play on words for her title without benefit of Cliff's Notes? The book I reference is "Goodbye Mr. Chips" by James Hilton in 1933.
The publisher lauds Cliff's Notes as a method to help students learn. Cliff, himself, however, created Cliff's Notes after he had already completed his own studies, including graduate work in geology and physics, without benefit of Notes.
The story of the Notes began when Cliff met Jack Cole, Canadian owner of Coles, The Book People, during Cliff's first job in a college bookstore. The publisher, already publishing Coles' Notes, planted the seed in Cliff to produce a U.S. version. For his first publication, Cliff chose to issue a condensed, footnoted version of a complete work of the master himself, Shakespeare.
Words, Words, Words, as the Bard writes in Hamlet, often say more than what is printed on the page. To take the easy way out and read Cliff's Notes, which are often wrong in part, by the way, can be compared to looking at a painting in a book and trying to analyze the artist's use of color and brush strokes when the actual, physical painting can be found in the next room. It is an impossible task, an insult to the artist, and deprives the observer of the developing the knowledge and experience of scholarly criticism.
Words, after all, are the paints applied to the paper by a writer. If we examine Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon, the books and school of the ages," (sorry, no Cliff's Notes are available for this one), which includes Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, Milton, Johnson, Goethe, Whitman, Dickinson, Joyce, Tolstoy and Austen, among others, we more intimately understand why there should not be shortcuts to masterpieces. Bloom states,
"Still, even if our current fashions prevail forever, canonical choices of both past and present works have their own interest and charm, for they too are part of the ongoing contest that is literature. Everyone has, or should have, a desert island list against that day when, fleeing one's enemies, one is cast ashore, or when one limps away, all warfare done, to pass the rest of one's time quietly reading. If I could have one book, it should be a complete Shakespeare; if two, that and a Bible. If three? There the complexities begin."
How can one appreciate and relate to a work with a summary? Each page, painstakingly written with the author's total life experience at the moment pen was put to paper, conveys and exposes a unique and secret biography of the writer. The beauty of reading what someone has painstakingly written is that you can feel the soul of the writer on the page through the landscape and characters.
Most books take no longer than two days to read. It's not a torturous duty to be avoided. I've read Cliff's Notes and many are far worse than any literary piece that it is trying to condense.
Literature, in all its forms, is an interdisciplinary study incorporating history, philosophy, art, music, science, mathematics and religion. Through the study of English, and its core in the humanities, we are better able to reach out and connect ourselves in a global perspective.
When we devalue a literary work by reading a compressed version, we cheat not only the author who rose to critical acclaim by writing it, but ourselves. We don't need a forty-year-old revolutionary method to replace reading a book.
To be enchanted, terrified, persuaded, mesmerized, romanced, or elated, throw out the Notes and read the book. Honest!