It’s the birthday of Clifton Keith Hillegass, the man who invented CliffsNotes, the small, book-sized crib sheet that millions of students have used to navigate through the forest of some of the world’s most intricate but intimidating literature.
Who among us has not used CliffsNotes at one time or another? Many can claim quite proudly that they never did, but I cannot. I used CliffsNotes in ninth grade to find my way through the breathless plot of A Tale of Two Cities for about three-fourths of the book. In high school, I found the notes helpful in sorting out the beautiful but disorienting language of Faulkner’s Light in August. In both cases, I was able to abandon the notes well before I reached the end of the assignments, having gotten my bearings well enough to walk through the forest on my own.
I used them, then, in the way that Hillegass wanted them to be used, as a quick-answer book for the maddening, sometimes discouraging puzzle that literature often is; not, as he put it in his famous disclaimer, “as a substitute for reading the works themselves.” If we can learn through such a guide that Dickens means this and not that; that Faulkner is suggesting specific characteristics and ideas in naming his characters Joe Christmas and Lena Burden, then we can free our minds of anxiety and enjoy the books as the authors intended. The world opens up for us as our experience of language expands, and we are more confident in reading, and in other activities, as well.
Of course, there are those students (I taught a few) whose sole “exposure” to literature was through CliffsNotes. They tried to write their research papers through quotation of the Notes alone. I weep for them still, today, languishing as they are at the bottom of Dante’s inferno, where I cast them. They were not sent there without the instruction on how to use such Notes judiciously, and then go beyond the notes to think their own thoughts. No, those who abused the Notes, and those who abuse them today, are only making Mr. Hillegass’s heirs richer and themselves poorer, and the millions who use his notes as they were meant to be used know this and smile.