Cliffs Notes, often scorned but widely used, become more respectable

December 26, 1990|By Ellen Creager | Ellen Creager,Knight-Ridder

DISCUSS the parallels between Frankenstein's Monster and Cliffs Notes.

2. What steps do the Tylers take to sneak Cliffs Notes into libraries?

3. Contrast the irony of librarians' reluctance to stock Cliffs Notes with bookstores' willingness to make millions off their sales.

4. Every Cliffs Notes contains this warning up front: "These notes are not a substitute for the text itself . . . students' attempt to use them in this way are denying themselves the very education that they are presumably giving their most vital years to achieve." Does anyone pay attention?

5. Discuss Romeo's dream on his first morning in Mantua.


Cliffs Notes, oft-scorned stepchild and reviled cheat sheet of classic literature, suddenly is rescued from literary purgatory by a Grosse Pointe, Mich., publisher. How? Several conflicting yet intertwining themes repeat themselves throughout the drama.

Robert Tyler: Owner of Grosse Pointe's Moonbeam Publications Inc., thus whimsically named because starting up his own firm "was like trying to catch a moonbeam in your hands," he says. Knows the thrilling effect sober gold lettering has on reference librarians' pulses. Expert in foreshadowing, and perhaps overshadowing the competition. Former vice president of marketing at Gale Research in Detroit, one of the nation's largest reference book publishers.

Judith Tyler: British-born partner in Moonbeam who also is married to Robert; they dwell in Grosse Pointe Shores. Lends continental savoir faire to the partnership. Previously, she was a secretary at Maire Elementary and Grosse Pointe North High School.

Cliff: Inventor of Cliffs Notes, Cliff Hillegass. A real guy who for some reason based his company in Lincoln, Neb. Cliffs Notes began in 1958; it's a family business that closely guards its publishing data.

The Monster: The creature created by Victor Frankenstein; the monster is a victim of misunderstanding.

The Nurse: Shakespeare created one of his immortal comic figures in Juliet's Nurse. Life is for living; to love means to make love -- her philosophy is that basic.

In the public square of Verona, a bunch of booksellers have collected to examine new reference books. Suddenly Robert Tyler has a brainstorm.

"It just struck me, I'd never seen a Cliffs Notes in a library. I walked into the Cliffs Notes booth and said, 'Any objection to me selling these to libraries?' and they said, 'Go ahead,'" he says.

However, right away he hits a brick wall. Librarians, it seems, hate Cliffs Notes. "It was an attitudinal problem," Tyler says in his discreet way, really meaning that Cliffs Notes traditionally have been as welcome at libraries as a hooker at church.

"They're afraid if kids read Cliffs Notes of 'Great Expectations' they won't read the book," Judith Tyler admits.

"But in this day when problems of literacy are rising, the best-selling literary reference series can't be found in libraries," her husband rejoins. "It's a form of academic censorship."

From behind her large desk, Judith Tyler continues her honest yet persuasive theme.

"If half the children in America could read and understand Cliffs Notes, this country would be in good shape," she says.

So the Tylers consult the Nurse, who says if she were Juliet she'd jump at the chance to marry Paris and bed down with him; her vulgarity, however, is never offensive. They also ask the Monster, who instantly perceives their anxiety ("If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched.") He advises them to strip Cliffs Notes of their garish exterior to better fit in with the other reference books. So that's what they do.

"It simply occurred to me that if we took the booklets and had them bound and indexed, we now have a professional reference book," Tyler says. Instead of ratty, blazing yellow and black paperback books shoved under a librarian's desk to be snuck out by low-down, lazy, corner-cutting students, the 227 Cliffs Notes are transformed into a tasteful 24-volume hardcover edition. It is divided by literary periods and sells for $1,504. Success: in eight months, more than 200 sets are sold to libraries, including 50 sets to Japan.

"It's a deliberate design," Robert Tyler says. "Plain black with gold lettering. We have been very controlled and cautious that it meets Cliffs Notes requirement of quality and excellence."

This fall, the Tylers also introduced a 13-volume set divided by authors, which sells for $577; thus, a person now can enjoy the Fyodor Dostoyevski Library of "The Brothers Karamazov," "Crime and Punishment" and "Notes from the Underground" in ultra-condensed version without subjecting himself to actually reading the books.

Still, the Tylers encounter resistance from some quarters, especially schools and university libraries that have an "English faculty looking over their shoulder." Robert Tyler figures if they can sell to even 5,000 of the 18,000 school and university libraries in the country, they'll be happy.

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