Study buddy enters middle age Cliffs Notes, the concise little pamphlets that summarize the great works of literature, enter their fifth decade of helping dilatory students slide by.

August 30, 1998|By Jeff Houck | Jeff Houck,COX NEWS SERVICE

For every bleary-eyed student who has tried to hack through the verbiage of "Othello" with the goal of finishing a term paper before sunrise, this anniversary is for you.

Your buddy Cliffs Notes has turned 40.

That's right, it's the big 4-0 for those handy study guides with the black-striped covers in a shade of yellow normally reserved for signs that read "BIOHAZARD."

The Lincoln, Neb., company that publishes the pamphlets is celebrating the milestone in a big way. High school and college students returning to campus this fall will spot Cliffs TV commercials and hear radio ads promoting such offers as free music CDs in return for buying a quantity of the guides. And there's a new Web site that touts real-life stories of how Cliffs saved the day (www.cliffs .com).

There's plenty to celebrate: Besides selling as many as 5 million copies of the pamphlets annually, along with other test-preparation aids, Cliffs Notes has become part of the American lexicon.

On TV's "Friends," when the rather dense Joey doesn't get the point of something obvious, his exasperated buddy Chandler tells him, "Read the Cliffs Notes."

In the '80s, the staff of the Harvard Lampoon used the familiar Cliffs format - biography of author, chapter-by-chapter plot summaries, character lists and sample essay questions - to parody the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. The publisher wasn't amused, but the point was made: Cliffs is a household name.

How did the company get to the head of its class? Here's the Cliffs Notes version of the Cliffs Notes' story:

In 1958, at the suggestion of a friend in Canada who wrote study guides, book salesman Cliff Hillegass (yes, there really is a Cliff behind Cliffs), decided to publish his own pamphlets condensing Shakespeare's major works. Writing the texts in his spare time and operating from the basement of his home in Lincoln, he borrowed $4,000 to print 32,000 copies. Within a year, he sold them all.

Despite battling dozens of competitors and copycat study guides through the years, Cliffs has maintained its No. 1 status.

"We've done it for a long time, and we're extremely good at what we do," said company president Robert Kovolik.

A slippery slope

Just because Cliff Hillegass himself writes on the inside cover of every pamphlet that "A thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts" doesn't mean students don't dodge "Moby Dick" and run straight for the Cliffs.

Or that teachers don't know it.

"English teachers love to hate Cliffs Notes," said Carol Jago, who served on the literature commission of the National Council of Teachers of English. A high school English teacher for 25 years in Santa Monica, Calif., Jago says the "Truth of it is, they are good study aids."

Jago relied on Cliffs to help her tackle "Tom Jones" when she attended St. Louis University. She had read only about 150 pages of the book and had a paper due the next day. "I tell the students this story all the time to show that even good students get into a bind," she said. "I would have to be a moron to think that [all] of my students get through the books I assign."

Jago believes Cliffs Notes should be used as "scaffolding" for those reading the classics. In California, for example, where English is a second language for large numbers of students, Cliffs can be crucial for navigating tougher texts, she said.

Still, there are those who try to skate by on Cliffs Notes alone. Some go as far as quoting patches of the pamphlets.

Marilyn Rinear, a retired English teacher who taught for 27 years, said she had students try to pull the same trick on her, too. She thinks that high school is no place for Cliffs.

"They have a positive place for college students, but for high school, you want to teach them critiquing skills that go beyond more than just using the resources that are available," Rinear said. "I tried to steer my students away from them and get them to read as great a variety as possible so that they can form an opinion about a book."

Cliffs Notes' Top 10

There are 230 titles on the market now, but some are perennial favorites. Among them:

"The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne

"A Tale of Two Cities," "Great Expectations," Charles Dickens

"The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Hamlet," "Macbeth," "Julius Caesar," William Shakespeare

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain

"The Odyssey," Homer

"Moby Dick," Herman Melville

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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