Thursday, May 29, 2003

Cliffs Notes, Heroin, Porn and the English Major

Not a bad column for my first week as assistant opinion editor, if I say so myself. And I do.
Cliffs Notes, Heroin, Porn and the English Major

In moments of pre-10th week desperation, scruples fall by the wayside.

I knew when I entered the Barnes & Noble downtown that I would leave a smaller man - that I would have to hang my head lower than usual. Cliffs Notes, those wonderfully compact and effortlessly readable summaries of history's greatest works of literature, may be lifesavers — and gradesavers — for some, but for those who commit their college careers to the written word, they're badges of shame. I might as well wear a Cliff Notes-yellow S on my chest for "shit for brains."

Entering Barnes & Noble, as an alternative to the overstuffed, three-tiered den of media pushers that is Borders, I knew exactly what I had come in for. That didn't stop me from perusing the actual, non-synopsized literature, maintaining the guise of a better-disciplined reader. Soon enough, I found myself standing before the altar of cheat - a nice display featuring a wide array of "guides" to books. They weren't even the yellow standard of literature shortcuts, Cliffs Notes, but some second-rate clones called SparkNotes.

I swallowed my pride and grabbed the SparkNotes for Joyce's
Ulysses, an ingenious book that for me encapsulated the essence of artfully arranged literature. It inspires me, it intrigues me and - godammit - it confuses the hell out of me. Ulysses is great, but I simply am not smart enough to mire through it alone.

As I stood in line, I wondered if I could have somehow alleviated the embarrassment of cheating by sandwiching the SparkNotes between other books - big, thick brainy books with big ol' Russian names on them, like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. But no. I meekly handed the librarian-like cashier my purchase. A forced smile stretched so tightly across her face I could see a maternal "I'm very disappointed in you" face peeking out from the inside.

"Is this gonna be it?" my faux Barnes & Noble mother asked.

It? It? What are you trying to say, lady? You think I don't read real books too?

"Yep. That's it," I responded politely.

"I remember when I read
Ulysses," the woman said. "It was a huge part of high school for me."

Oh, you snarky bitch. You totally can tell I'm way older than high school age and you just want to make me feel dumb. Well hah! I don't believe Joyce had written Ulysses back in the Bronze Age when you were in high school.

"Neat," I responded.

I rushed out, carrying the SparkNotes in my Barnes & Noble tote bag like a closet drug addict racing from his dealer with a baggie of heroin.

I probably would have felt as shameful if I had asked her to ring up a copy of
Smutmonger Weekly or Coco Jugs or Foxhole Buddies. It's that bad being an English major who not only skips the reading but actually ventures out to buy a dumbed-down version of the required reading.

So I have my
Ulysses Lite now - plot summaries, character profiles and historical context, now free of stream of consciousness! Its makers tried very hard to mask the utter criminality of slicing up great literature and mashing the remains into pocket-sized booklets. The back proclaims SparkNotes are "just what you need to succeed in school" - you know, except for brains. The back also promises insightful literature analysis "by Harvard students for students everywhere." I'd guess this means the world-famous Harvard University, but since this is never specifically stated, my guide could have been written by students of the Harvard School of Cosmetology. There's even a whopping 10-question test you can give yourself at the end to gauge how much of this watered-down classic you actually absorbed.

I've thought up some nifty defenses to any accusations of my academic slacking.

"It's almost the end of the last quarter of the year."

"It's just a study guide - it says so on the front!"

"Everyone buys these things, anyway."

But nonetheless, Cliffs Notes, SparkNotes and any other kind of Slackernotes blow, roundly and soundly. I flipped into the regular, non-mangled
Ulysses to review a point lightly touched upon in a synopsis of the final chapter. "... I often felt I wanted to kiss him all over also his lovely young cock," narrates Molly, the protagonist's sex maniac wife in the novel's appropriately raunchy conclusion.

I smile and laugh. Damn, this book's way dirtier than the SparkNotes for it.

Daily Nexus assistant opinion editor Drew \has lifetime subscriptions to Coco Jugs and Foxhole Buddies.