SparkNotes: Why you shouldn’t give a damn about their bad reputation

“Okay. It’s happening. I’m actually going to do the class reading this time. I’m going to physically read the material and attempt to understand it before class tomorrow.”

Photo credit: Creative Commons
Photo credit: Creative Commons

You flip to the page, and stare at the title.

“It’s only a few words. I understand them all, so that’s a good start.”

You start to read. A few sentences go by. You stop.

“What the hell– was that English? Am I reading the wrong textbook?”

You check the title and page numbers, but everything is as it should be.

You read the same words again, slower this time. You’re confused. You stop.

“The Indiana Jones theme should be playing if I’m translating hieroglyphics,” you mutter.

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there. Sometimes you just don’t understand what you’re reading, and that’s okay. It’s okay to have questions, and it’s okay to seek help.

SparkNotes, a company which provides study guides, has been online since 1999 and in print since 2000 after being purchased by Barnes & Noble. Originally “” created by four Harvard students, the site got its name from the first, six literature study guides digitally published under the name “SparkNotes.”

Photo credit: Creative Commons

As of 2013, the site provides study guides for literature, among other subjects, “no fear” literature,no fear Shakespeare”, and a video SparkNotes series.  However, nowhere on their about page did they say their guides should replace reading the actual material.

“We’re here to help you learn, not to help you cheat,” the page said. “Our literature guides are meant to be read along with the books they analyze. They are not intended to be copied on tests or papers.”

However, the use of SparkNotes for cheating and plagiarism was very common in its nascent days, deterring teachers from allowing their use in the classroom.

Dr. Molly Hardy, professor of high-school and college English for seven years, asserted that she felt the best way to understand literature was to engage with the text itself.

Admitting to using CliffsNotes in high school, Hardy explained that “my eleventh grade teacher saw me using them, upbraided me, and that was the end of that.”

“I should add,” Hardy said, “that this teacher was also the person who made me want to study English in college.  I learned so much from her, and I really took it to heart when she pointed out the error of my study/learning habits.”

Photo credit: Creative Commons
Photo credit: Creative Commons

 Dr. Richard Simpson, English professor at St. Bonaventure University for 43 years, has used SparkNotes for reviewing works he’s read and to introduce himself to works he hasn’t. His only caution to students is to disregard SparkNotes as a substitute for the work itself.

“Anyone who thinks you know a work when you’ve read the SparkNotes…might think a Big Mac was as good as a feast from a world-class chef because both contain(ed) sesame seeds,” Simpson said.

SparkNotes provided general information, chapter analysis, summaries and study tools for each piece of literature, including quizzes, key facts and explanations of important quotations. Where the guides provide a general overview of each work, the information is best used as a companion to the actual work itself.

In a 2010 story in the New York Times, Carl Fisher, chairman of the comparative world literature and classics department at California State University, Long Beach, reviewed different types of online study guides.

“It (SparkNotes) is a generally useful, more nuanced interpretation than the others. Of all the ones I looked at… SparkNotes is the best choice,” Fisher said.

Photo credit: Creative Commons
Photo credit: Creative Commons

So, whether you’re totally lost on the meaning of the text, or need help identifying symbols and themes, SparkNotes provides some assistance. However, using the site with the expectation of becoming an expert on the work is certainly ill-advised.

If you want to write well, a good start would be reading those who have written well in the past and the present. But, those works aren’t always the easiest to wade through. Don’t be afraid to use guides like SparkNotes to assist you in understanding why good writing is the way it is. Someone, somewhere needed help, just like you.

Take advantage of the guides, but don’t abuse them.


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