In Cliff We Trust

Just the Plot, please.

It's 11 p.m. That paper on Dickens's use of irony is due in but scant hours, yet Bleak House is sitting on the shelf untouched. Some students, facing this predicament, might throw their arms up in despair. Those in the know, however, don't sweat it--they simply reach for the trusty black and yellow stripes.

Since 1958, Cliffs Notes have offered insights on hundreds of literary works, running the gamut from de rigeur classics like The Scarlet Letter, to more modern works like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Although Cliffs Notes has rescued many a wayward student from academic self-destruction, in so doing, they have developed a rather unsavory reputation as "cheat sheets."

With the debut of Cliffs Notes, students across America found that they could forgo last-minute wading through painfully thick tomes at the expense of health and sanity. Instead, they could refer to an appealingly slender, ever-so-friendly booklet brimming with handy plot summaries, character sketches, and salient themes which would have been lost on a harried student dashing through the real thing. Suddenly, writing papers became a breeze--and moral questions arose as to the appropriateness of the Notes.

Cliffs Notes Inc., based in Lincoln, Nebraska, has weathered plenty of criticism that their synopses encourage academic slothfulness and impede original thinking. The Cliffs folks insist that their product is merely a supplement to the book, not a substitute. According to a spokesperson for the company, the booklets are designed in the hopes of "triggering thinking processes."

Despite the company's efforts to mend its product's reputation, serious academics still seem to turn up their noses at the thought of McPlots sandwiched between garish black-and-yellow covers.

And though Harvard probably has its own share of closet Cliffs Notes users, the book supplements do not appear to have much of a following here.

Although the availability of Cliffs Notes at nearby Store 24 might suggest that procrastinating first-years keep the booklets in high demand, an employee observed that only a few copies are sold per week. Of those that do sell, however, he said the Shakespeare editions are the most popular.

According to Barbara Freeman, assistant professor of English and American language and literature, Cliffs Notes have not been a cause for departmental concern.

Freeman teaches small seminar classes on feminism and psychoanalysis, which can't easily be reduced to Cliffs-speak. Thus, her students have little reason to turn to plot summaries, she explained. The little books are as foreign to her as earth would be to a Martian, Freeman said.

For others, Cliffs Notes are not as alien a concept. One Harvard senior used them while taking "Heroes," the ever-popular Core class. For him, the supplements left much to be desired.

"The Cliffs Notes were helpful only because I didn't do the reading. They're pretty good at summarizing, but beyond that, they didn't add very much," he said.

"You can't rely on the presented in Cliffs Notes," he added.

Nor would founder Cliff Hillegass want anyone to restrict themselves to the Notes's digestion of a book. He reminds students in the "Note to the Reader" prefacing each edition, "The goal of education is not the unquestioning acceptance of any single interpretation."

Notwithstanding the noble ring to those words, they aren't much help to the struggling Harvard student--whose educational goal tends to be the unquestioning acceptance of the professor's. After all, the senior says, "that's what you get tested on."