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CliffsNotes for CliffsNotes? Yeah, Pretty Much.

The slacker service is introducing five-minute video summaries of ... their summaries, plus one-minute videophone compatible summaries of their summaries. Of their summaries.

by
William M. Briggs

Bio

February 12, 2011 - 12:00 am

If there’s one thing that’s wrong with this country, it’s that our poor, overworked, not-nearly-pampered enough children have too much reading to do. Why, there’s Twitter (“#lindsaylohan Hate when i record a show, then i dont have the episode that follows it!”), Facebook (“Yassi is missing old the days”), and SMS (“I was like LOL”), not to mention a myriad of long and complex bus and roadway signs.

What a shock it must be, then, for these little darlings to show up at school and be told by a teacher that they have to go through the entire 250-page Tom Sawyer! (Bowdlerized version, of course.) Or, Lord help them, the massive 600-page Invisible Man. And let’s not even mention the cruelty inherent in assigning any Dickens novel — littered, as they are, with sentences of more than eight words! It would take an ordinary high school or college student years to read one of these books. Which means that by the time he got to the end, he would have forgotten what took place at the beginning.

Luckily, the stalwart, not to say patriotic, publishing firm CliffsNotes looked with horror at what this nation’s future adults faced, and so that company designed its famous yellow-and-black summaries which cut student labor by at least fifty percent. For example, Tom Sawyer is down to a slim 96 pages in the CliffsNotes’ version, and Ellison’s book shrinks to just over 100. As one grateful student said in an Amazon review:

I had the read Ellison’s Invisible Man for AP Literature — and after struggling through the first five unbearably long chapters — I made a decision — To through th book out the window!!! Save yourself the agony of reading this “great” work of American literature — buy the cliffs notes — they have all of the info w/o the boring stuff!

You could almost see the tears of relief on his cheek, no?

But that was, as they say, then. And this is now. By God, civilization has moved beyond the printed word! We have iPhones, iPads, cell phones with apps aplenty. Why are we still forcing kids to read?

Well, we won’t, because CliffsNotes has not forgotten its mission. According to various news reports, that company is now producing brief internet videos of its famous crib notes which will be shown initially on AOL, since “everything in today’s world seems to be headed towards speedier and shorter ways to get information.”

Twain and Dickens are information you see; not art.

The Wall Street Journal’s Lauren Schuker quotes a John Wiley & Sons executive (that company owns CliffsNotes):

“In our culture, the word CliffNotes already carries great meaning and resonance — people use it as a descriptor for being concise,” said Marc Mikulich, Wiley’s vice president of brand management.

Of course, many think CliffsNotes a descriptor for laziness and ignorance, with more than a whiff of deception. But those who think this do so because they are inflexible and reactionary and too stuck in their old ways. They are also probably not sufficiently worshipful of Steve Jobs.

Anyway, these new “study aides” won’t be dry, talking-head videos either; no sir. They will be “humorous shorts.” And not just humorous, but “irreverent,” too. Yet CliffsNotes says these humorous, irreverent shorts will “still manage to present the plot, characters, and themes” of the assignments — I mean books.

When I read the The Old Curiosity Shop, I too laughed when Little Nell died — a burst of hilarity which was induced by pages that weren’t even in color, let alone 3D. So I can’t wait to see how uproariously irreverent CliffsNotes’ version will be. I look forward eagerly to Native-American Joe’s death scene. And just imagine Miss Havisham in her tattered dress! Maybe Pip can accidentally spill some tomato juice on it and put the old bag in her place. How irreverent! Ha ha!

The best news is, as it should be, saved for last. Mark Burnett, a “reality-show producer” (Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?), is charged with making the videos, which will run a full five minutes. But five minutes is an eternity in our go-go, busy-busy, click-swipe world! Thus, for each video of such interminable length, a “shorter one-minute version will also be made available on mobile telephones, as an emergency refresher before a test.”

Only American ingenuity could take a work as serious as Hamlet and boil it down to one humorous, irreverent minute. God bless us, every one!

William M. Briggs is a statistical consultant in New York and San Francisco. He is an American Meteorological Society member and serves on their Probability & Statistics Committee. His specialty is on the philosophy of evidence, forecast evaluation, and marketing.
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