Don’t Use Study Guides!

Study guides WON’T HELP YOU! In fact they will harm you, in several ways:

1. They often are inaccurate and of poor quality.

For example, not long ago, I remembered not having yet answered a student’s question about the plot structure of To the Lighthouse. Not having a copy at home, I did a quick web search and came up with several sources for summaries and analyses of the novel.

I was appalled to find numerous simple, factual errors. Some were just annoying, like the assertion that Lily Briscoe’s attitude in the first part of the story was typical for a young woman of the 1920s, when the first part of the novel takes place before World War I! More serious were errors that betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding, like the assertion that Mrs. Ramsay gets up from her knitting to go into town with Mr. Tansley, leaving James all by himself for an hour or so??!! No: Mrs. Ramsay goes into town directly after lunch, before the action of the novel begins. Her trip into town is a memory from earlier that afternoon.

So not only will these shortcuts deprive you of the benefits of doing your own learning, they will actually mislead and misinform you!

2. They prevent you from thinking for yourself.

3. They encourage you to think—wrongly—that the goal is to discover THE ANSWER or THE MEANING and then regurgitate it on an exam.

They, in short, prevent you from thinking for yourself about a text and gaining the skills needed to read a text insightfully—which is what you need to succeed in any literature course. Canned responses cribbed from study guides can be spotted a mile off by teachers and examiners, and earn no credit.

SparkNotes is evil, mostly, but like Socrates I will argue that in such cases people choose evil because they think it will benefit them somehow. However, now you know: shortcuts to learning don’t help you, they harm you.

What you need to do instead is read the books, re-read the books, read them again, and think about them. For more on this, read “Advice from an Examiner” (link in the sidebar).

UPDATE February 2012

Here’s what American novelist Amy Tan wrote about discovering a CliffsNotes study guide for her first novel, The Joy Luck Club:

In page after chilling page, I saw that my book had been hacked apart, autopsied, and permanently embalmed into chapter-by-chapter blows: plot summaries, genealogy charts, and—ai-ya!—even Chinese horoscopes. Further in, I was impressed to learn of all the clever nuances I’d apparently embedded into the phrase “invisible strength,” which is what a mother in the book taught her chess-playing daughter, Waverly. According to Cliff, I meant for “invisible strength” to refer to the “human will,” as well as to represent “female power” and “the power of foreigners.” It was amazing what I had accomplished.

—Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate (p. 9)


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Great literature does not send messages! It raises questions and explores possibilities.