For the well-read wanna-be

July 13, 2002

FESS UP: Who didn't at some point in their early years rely on those yellow-jacket-striped booklets to decipher Shakespeare, Dickens or Hemingway?

Back then, CliffsNotes were must-reads - perhaps the only reads - for many high schoolers. Even college students relied on Uncle Cliff's band of summarizers and analyzers to decode Aristotle's Ethics, Dante's Divine Comedy and Joyce's Ulysses.

But news that CliffsNotes and its competitors are printing up their takes on the Harry Potter series and the book club fare of popular novels sounds like a sorry tale of well-read wannabes. Some readers reportedly rely on the guides so they can keep up with the literary Joneses during cocktail parties. What a sad commentary on the state of the American cocktail party.

Then there are the book club members who pick up a guide because they don't have time to read the club selection before the meeting. Here's some advice: Skip the meeting and start reading next month's book.

Another view comes from Baltimore book club veteran Mark Sheehan, who remembers that his former English professor was fond of saying: "Even if you didn't read last night's assignment, come to class, it's still worth being there."

For the club member looking to "bone up" before discussing A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, The Joy Luck Club or Pigs in Heaven, remember this: A book club is supposed to be fun, an intellectual challenge, not a literary Can You Top This.

And let's not forget that these clipped versions of the classics or contemporary fiction often leave out the best parts. Take a look at this passage in Bridget Jones's Diary: "I'm falling apart. My boyfriend is sleeping with a bronzed giantess. My mother is sleeping with a Portuguese. Jeremy is sleeping with a horrible trollop. Prince Charles is sleeping with Camilla Parker Bowles. Do not know what to believe in or hold on to any more."

The Continuum guide reworked Bridget's diary entry like this: The book "presents some pertinent questions about the changing nature of relationships where more and more young singles are experiencing the alienation of working and living in huge cities with rapidly shifting populations and fewer opportunities to make friends outside the workplace. "


Reading opens up the world. It offers romance to lonely hearts, knowledge to the uninformed, wisdom to the young, adventure to the less traveled.

Why dull the experience? Unless, of course, there will be a quiz tomorrow.

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