Guides rendering books obsolete

May 31, 2005, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 16 years, 3 months ago

Abuse of popular SparkNotes study aids encourages complacency, discourages reading

"Then it was suddenly revealed to me that my own humble existence and the Realms of Truth were less widely separated than I had supposed, that at certain points they were actually in contact; and in my new-found confidence and joy I wept upon his printed page, as in the arms of a long-lost father."

Marcel Proust
"Swann's Way"

Fittingly, you will not encounter these words about the power of books in the SparkNotes edition of Proust's "Swann's Way," nor will you find the nearly half-dozen pages of meditation on this subject that follow them.

You will, however, find this inadequate assessment of the main character's state of mind:

"He finds that books bring him closer to `truth and beauty,' especially in the overwhelming power of their presence in literature in contrast to their scant appearance in the `real' world."

Herein lies the problem with SparkNotes, the series of comprehensive, largely free and mostly online literary study guides whose print counterparts have become phenomenal bestsellers: Books do bring people closer to "truth and beauty." Countless readers have "wept upon the printed page" and felt the "overwhelming power of the presence of literature" - but you can't if you're just reading SparkNotes.

An informal Silver Chips survey of 100 students conducted last September found that 58 percent of Blazers do not read for pleasure, meaning that a majority of Blair students read only through English classes. And even then, it seems that most opt for the convenience of SparkNotes over the presumed "tedium" of the assigned source material.

Jokes one junior, "One-hundred percent of the school is on SparkNotes."

An overstatement, perhaps, but one that doesn't stray far from the truth. Although English resource teacher Vickie Adamson believes that a majority of her students are reading the assigned books, she notes that almost every teacher in the English department has at some point received a paper plagiarized verbatim from SparkNotes summaries.

The culprit here is not the low interest level of the students, but rather, a lack of time.

Unfortunately for both neglected works of great literature and the students who are doing the neglecting, schoolwork has become an increasingly utilitarian proposition. For most students, the occasional chapter of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "The Jungle" isn't merely a barrier to free time, but also a barrier to the completion of more immediately important assignments.

And utility dictates that, with the fast pace of student life and the opportune existence of terse and understandable study guides, reading "Huck Finn" or "The Jungle" is worth neither the time nor the effort. One junior illustrates this point by explaining that, while he reads books assigned over the summer because he has free time in which to read them, he almost always turns to SparkNotes during the work-intensive school year.

As a result of this mentality, to most English students, books are a mere annoyance and not "humanity in print," as historian Barbara Tuchman once characterized them, or a necessity for survival, as Thomas Jefferson claimed.

Novels like "Huck Finn" are towering intellectual accomplishments expressing diverse and often unique perspectives on life and the human condition. But they are, for convenience's sake, ignored and discarded rather than read and appreciated.

Admittedly, on some level, it is nice to know that Huck fakes his own death in chapter seven while leaving yourself plenty of time for tomorrow's history homework. But to read an entire book from start to finish, to follow young Huckleberry as he abandons the limitations of his repressive environment to seek meaning and adventure somewhere downstream - that is better than nice, and its benefits are much greater than the fleeting rewards of a few extra hours of free time.

And these benefits are practical as well as figurative. Great literature challenges its readers, making them explore and comprehend its deeper themes and concepts, and in the process, forcing them to think critically about what they are reading. The brain is, for all intents and purposes, a muscle, and reading is mental exercise; hence the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon's assertion that "reading maketh a full man."

SparkNotes makes it so that humanity in print can now be almost totally circumvented or avoided. But what students must realize is that, while, as the great American essayist Henry David Thoreau wrote, the reading of certain books may mark a new epoch in a person's life, the timely completion of tomorrow's chemistry homework marks little more than, well, the timely completion of tomorrow's chemistry homework.

Perhaps if we put down the SparkNotes and picked up the latest assigned reading, more of us would know what Thoreau was talking about.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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