A short note on Cliff

Appreciation: Cliff Hillegass has died, but for better (say students) or worse (say teachers), his Notes live on.

May 08, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Editor's Cliffs Note: "These notes are not a substitute for the text itself. ... Readers' attempts to use them in this way are denying themselves the very education that they are presumably giving their most vital years to achieve."

The inventor of Cliffs Notes, Clifton Keith Hillegass, died Saturday in his Nebraska home. He was 83. He published Cliffs Notes for 40 years, until 1998, when he sold his famous study guides to the company that publishes the "For Dummies" self-help books.

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Cliff Hillegass was no dummy. While working at a Nebraska book company, Hillegass began "Cliff's Notes" - which sounded snappier than "Hillegass' Notes." In 1958, he borrowed $4,000 to start his business, and by 1990, his $11 million-a-year company had produced 50 million of the famous bumblebee-striped guides with their boiler-plate plot summaries.

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Hillegass started with Shakespeare. Tough going for high school kids. The Cliffs Notes for "Hamlet" (his first title), "Macbeth," and "Julius Caesar" remain perennial best sellers. He enlisted graduate students to write the guides.

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"Juliet, Baby, it's easier with Cliff's Notes," said a company slogan in the 1960s.

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Why isn't it still Cliff's Notes and not Cliffs Notes? In the 1970s, the apostrophe was dropped. No abridged explanation was given.

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In 1997, Villanova University banned the sale of Cliffs Notes on campus. Academic crutches will not be permitted, the university said.

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In 2001, Johns Hopkins University still sells Cliffs Notes on its campus.

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"I think Cliffs Notes are interesting in the way the is interesting. There's a whole Reader's Digestseries of redactions of things," says Frances Ferguson, an English professor at Johns Hopkins University.

This is not a good thing.

"The quality of the original is lost," she says, "and that's always been true of Cliffs Notes."

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redaction. Editing, re-editing or revision.

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"One of the things people like is to get away from something they ought to be doing," says Ferguson, who specializes in 18th- and 19th-century literature. She never used Cliffs Notes. Did she scorn those who did? "I'm sure I did."

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Students no longer need to hit a bookstore at the 11th hour to snag a Cliffs Notes to "The Odyssey." For pennies under the $4.99 book price, Cliffs Notes for literary works are downloaded any time from www. cliffsnotes.com.

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Until a few years ago, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore wouldn't allow students to check out its ample supply of Cliffs Notes. But so many students and adults requested the guides, the library put Cliffs Notes in circulation, says Pratt librarian Eunice Harper. "So many kids use Cliffs Notes," she says, "and they don't seem to have any ethical questions."

Since its Cliffs Notes went into circulation, the Pratt has enjoyed an excellent return rate, Harper says. "The students are so happy they return them all to the library."

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ethical. Having to do with particular moral standards or values.

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Hillegass donated $250,000 to establish a professorship in English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His 1999 gift endowed a chair in 19th- century literature. Take that, Frances Ferguson.

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Author Amy Tan reportedly told an audience at the American Library Association that the Cliffs Notes for her book "The Joy Luck Club" contained inaccuracies and misinformation.

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In 1977, Cliffs Notes for "Macbeth" proved accurate and informational enough to secure a quality grade for a certain high school student who had denied himself the very education he presumably gave his most vital years to achieve.

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Rest in peace, Cliff Hillegass. You were only trying to help.

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