Yellow & Black & Read All Over
April 26, 2011
Hidden among my father's rows and rows of books -- every book that had ever landed on the high school English curriculum list, plus a few from the banned column, for good measure -- was an impressive stash of Cliffs Notes.
I remember being surprised by the huge number of yellow-and-black-striped study guides one day while digging around for something to read, something more challenging than the pathetic selection of Christian young adult fiction-with-a-Jesus-message my school's library offered. I think I was on a Thomas Hardy kick, or maybe it was Vonnegut by that point. Either way, I knew I'd find something that would alternately impress and/or horrify my own English teacher, but I wasn't expecting the Cliffs Notes.
I knew exactly what they were, and how most of my peers used them: For cheating. You read the guide and not the book, and hopefully gleaned enough information to bullshit your way through class discussions and tests. They were a safer bet than renting a movie version that might have changed everything, but of course they cost a lot more, and you ran the risk of having a teacher or parent catch you with them.
And then there was my parent, who was also a teacher, who owned dozens of them. More than dozens! Right there in our house, steps away from my bedroom! Dickens, Shakespeare, Hawthorne. Books I'd enjoyed and books I'd barely been able to endure.
I can't really explain why it blew my mind, but holy SHIT, it blew my mind.
So I asked him about the Cliffs Notes. Why did he have them? Weren't they like, totally solely for cheating? Weren't they a sin of some kind?
Well, yes and no, he told me. He bought them to help him write tests that would weed out the cheaters. The kids who relied solely on the notes and regurgitated the sample essays and themes. Cliffs Notes left stuff out a lot, you see, so he could include questions about the left-out stuff on exams, thus quickly teaching his students a lesson: Mr. Corbett Will Not Let You Get Away With That Crap.
But sometimes the guides were helpful, if you've read the book but need a little help understanding what you've read, or keeping characters or historical events straight, or just want to maybe read a different interpretation than what your teacher tells you.
Here he gave me A Look, since we had a bit of a private joke about my English teacher's absolute butchering of Great Expectations the year before, because every single work of literature contained Christ-figure symbolism according to him, and I'd gotten so fed up with it I'd written an entire paper arguing that Miss Havisham represented a "fallen Christ figure" just to be a pain in his ass, and he gave me an A on the goddamned nonsensical thing.
After that, I frequently helped myself to the Cliffs Notes. Never in place of the reading the assigned text, because, well, my dad trusted me with his Cliffs Notes. He knew I wasn't a cheater. He knew I didn't need to cheat. I was smart, I was an A student, I'd been holding my own with him in discussions on Shakespeare since junior high.
The funny thing is that I didn't really and truly know he knew all that until he trusted me with his Cliffs Notes.
Then Heart of Darkness happened. Heart of Fucking Darkness, by Joseph Fucking Conrad. I hated that book. I simply could not get into that book. I tried, over and over again, but somehow ended up lost and frustrated only a couple chapters in. I had a lot of other projects going on so I procrastinated, figuring that I could speed read it under pressure at the final hour in time for the exam.
The final hour came, and I was in tears. Never in my life had I been so thoroughly defeated by a book. Never in my life had I encountered a book I hated so much that I just could not get through it.
I went to my dad's study in a panic. Had he ever read Heart of Darkness? Ever taught it in class? What was I missing? What was wrong with me?
Nothing, he said. I hate that book too. The horror! The horror! Terribly written. It's a chore to get through.
And then: Do we have the Cliffs Notes for that one?
Yes, I said. But...I haven't read the book yet...
You tried, he said. I won't tell.
And he never, ever did.
(And I did just fine on the test.)