The Long and Short of CliffsNotes

Most of us have been cornered by friends and family who insist on telling an old story that seems to go on and on. Generally, these stories can be squeezed into about a tenth of the words used without an appreciable loss of the story’s meaning or its essence. Reader’s Digest and therapists have made a good living doing that very thing. There are probably lots of really good reasons why the extra words are used, but they are hard to rationalize, at least for me. But that has not stopped me (and a lot of my colleagues) from embellishing lectures. Most of the time, these captive audiences endure my old stories without obvious discomfort. That is, of course, if you don’t count the occasional “glassy-eyed stare,” as my eighth-grade world history teacher called it.

More than once, my friend John Pafford and I would lose interest in Mr. Williford’s compelling story of daily life in third-century Rome, and he would catch us looking out the window. With a crisp snap of his fingers, he’d call our names (without looking at us), all the while mopping his brow with his white handkerchief. Once again we were walking the dusty cobblestones of the Apian Way . . . at least until we could see the busses start lining up. I’m sure Rome’s smells and its side streets were memorable, at least to Mr. Williford, but after lunch on a warm southern Georgia afternoon, I just wanted the Joe Friday version of history—“just the facts, ma’am.” It was too hot for the details. I didn’t know it at the time, but some of the details took root (that’s probably why this article is so long).

One of the assignments in that class was an oral book report on a historical novel from any time period. As a poor reader, I had to choose a book with certain criteria. It had to be short and there had to be a CliffsNotes version. The Red Badge of Courage fit the bill. In just a few pages, I got it. A young boy, not much older than me, went off to war full of himself and talking big. But when he saw what war was and what it did, he panicked. With that bare-bones outline, I could fill in the blanks with applications from my own life, much like I imagined Stephen Crane would. I told that story in Mr. Williford’s class; to my surprise, he apparently liked it, and I learned a lot.

Unlike my fast-reading colleagues, I am probably a little more open to the role of CliffsNotes. Most of the people I know with initials behind their names tend to think of these essential aids in my education a little like the Romans thought of the Barbarians at their gates: These mongrels will ruin it all. Maybe so. But as I look around, I find “the less is more” principle in almost everything—from Thoreau’s doctrine of simplicity to Willie Nelson’s suggestion that, “maybe it’s time to get back to the basics of life.”   [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Gary Riggins is the director of graduate studies in education at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee.