34.5 Weeks

Yellow & Black & Read All Over

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. 

Heart-of-darkness-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.)



The House of the Seven Gables was that book for me. I haven't read Heart of Darkness though. But I did enjoy Catch-22.

Life of a Doctor's Wife

I hated that ridiculous book, too.

And I loved this story. How wonderful to be so understood by a parent.


What a great memory of your dad. Thank you for sharing, Amy, I know it is all still very open-wound at this point.

Also, I had an English professor in college with the same Christ-figure belief, and it made me fucking nuts too! The class I took with her was actually an interesting one, in which you read the book and also watched the film, and compared the two. But, at one point when she started saying that a random bird in a movie we were watching was Jesus, I totally lost it, and got up and walked out of the class.


I couldn't read Heart of Darkness, either. Oh, how I tried. I just simply could not get through that damned book. Now I feel like I'm in good company.

Angie @ Musings of a Violet Monkey

Sweet story. :)



You are so lucky to have a dad who understood and knew you well enough to help you when you needed it and to encourage you to push forward when you didn't.
And, yes, Heart of Darkness sucked. Probably the only book from school that I ever truly disliked.


I loved this. Truly, truly. Just absolutely loved this! A great story, memory. How lucky you've been to have the dad you had for all those years. He sounds like a really fantastic human being.
Great post.


I hated that book, too! But loved the story about your dad. Thanks for sharing what a nifty guy he was with those of us who didn't have the pleasure of meeting him.


I totally don't remember what it's about now, but I do remember that I completely hated Heart of Darkness.


I once took a test (open book, thank God) on Roots. I had read the first chapter? Maybe two? And then just cranked it out during the test by skimming and looking for answers. I got an A.

This isn't really all that related to your post, though. This is a sweet story. And I love that English teachers had Cliff's Notes!

FreeRange Pamela

What a lovely story and a great memory. Speaks volumes about the quality of the relationship between yourself and your dad. To be treasured. But you know that ;-)


I love this story, and I love love LOVE that you and your dad ALSO hated Heart of Darkness. I got in a huge fight with my AP English teacher over how much I hated it, and I ended up writing one of those thumbing-my-nose-at-her papers about it, too. Awesome.


A fine man, your father.

Amelia Sprout

Your dad sounds amazing, Amy. The kind of teacher I would have loved to have had. What an absolutely wonderful story.


Whoa! I'm glad I'm not the only one who had trouble with professor absolutely LOVED Joseph Conrad and raved and RAVED about this book and the writing and the plot structure. Me? Never got through it either.

And totally aced the class anyway.


Oh, I hated that books as well! I never made it through.
I am happy to know I am not alone-- I've let me teenage son read some less than savory items this year to irritate his English teacher-- from Fahrenheit 451 to Animal Farm to On the Road. We discuss, at length, at home, and he write these amazing/irritating reports for her honor's class.


Chills and tears and smiles, all at once, from this great story.

Laura @ the Diniwilks

I love this, especially the part about Miss Havisham as a fallen Christ figure. My dad was an english major, but we could never really talk about books, at least not like this.


My mom makes me laugh by referring to How Green is my Fucking Valley with a swear word in the title every time. I think that book was a bit of an irritant for her in high school.


Ugh, mine was 'All the President's Men'. Could not do it. Gave up about 3/4 the way through (first time ever - I usually soldier through them) and bullshitted my paper on it. I had to read it for AP History of all things - I *may* have also written that it was a horried tome in said paper as well.

Then! Oh the irony. In Honors Writing Workshop II (couldn't fit AP English into my scheduled what with A&P and what not - why am I telling you this, no one cares)on our reading list was...All The President's Men. And I lobbied long and hard to change it to...Moby Dick. I will take great while whale allegories over that nonsense any day of the week though I'm not sure that my classmates appreciated it.


It sounds like you and your dad had a great relationship.

For the record, I had the same experience with Heart of Darkness in high school. I tried and tried, but I could absolutely not get through it. I majored in English in college and gave it another try. I still couldn't do it. When I started teaching high school English, and it was on the senior curriculum, I panicked. There was no way I could teach it effectively. Luckily, I was able to get permission to swap it out with something else, because my department head hated it too and had pity on me.


He sounds like an amazingly smart man... :)


I hated Heart of Darkness, too. Don't think I ever finished it either, and still got good grades and went on to get my MA, blah, blah, blah.

What a great story. I used to have a Myspace account just for checking up on my students. When you teach high school, knowing who broke up with who over the weekend can make or break your Monday.


I fall a little more in love with your dad with every story you tell about him.


The best parents are the ones who let you break the rules once in a while ;)


I'm OK on Heart of Darkness, but Lord Jim, also by Conrad? My God, what a mess. Never have been able to make it through that book, and I have a PhD in English. I had to step in, late in a semester, to finish a course for a colleague with medical problems ... and teach THAT BOOK. I will confess it: I used Cliff's Notes to help me get a handle on the plot (such as it is) and basic critical questions. Also extended discussion of the previous book so we only had to spend two class periods on Conrad.

Love the story about your father. What a wonderful memory. I have an extensive library of Cliff's Notes for precisely the same teaching reasons. I also used them personally as a kind of annotated table of contents when I was working on really long books (Moby Dick, Tristram Shandy, Bleak House), so I could more quickly locate a specific event or quotation I remembered but couldn't immediately place.


You are not alone in hating that damn Frenchman's writing.


Aww, love it!


Totally delurking to tell you my story of Heart of Darkness. I had to read it my senior year of high school and I did (unsuccessfully). I f'ing bombed that test because I didn't understand one single word. Everyone who read the Cliff's Notes passed. And was our only test grade of the semester, so I had an F for English (and I was the valedictorian). I also received English Student of the Year while carrying that F(for honesty? Because it wasn't for great reading comprehension). I HATE HEART OF DARKNESS.
PS--The next year at college, my professor informed us that everything was about lesbianism (and horrors if you mentioned anything religious). That totally made Rime of the Ancient Mariner interesting.


So this is a fabulous little story, and it made me smile. Thank you for sharing.

My English class downfall? Anything James Joyce. Sigh. Stream of consciousness just doesn't do it for me.

Suburban Plumage

Oh, what a great story. And what a wonderful snapshot of your relationship with your father.


I had to delurk to let you know what funny memories you have brought up for me. I read the book and couldn't make head nor tails out of it (also read the cliff notes) but the teacher we had had a special fondness for it and would go on and on about it's images of going to the depths of hell. When we had to do a paper on the story I decided I'd go all out and did a comparison of Heart of Darkness to Dante's Inferno (you know because of the "depths of hell" thing). I'd only read about half of Dante's Inferno and I totally made up the comparisons to the second half. Luckily I don't think my teacher had read it either because I got a A on the paper.

Amy B

I primarily read you for your humor, and secondarily for your parenting insight. This post doesn't really fit either, but it one of my favorite posts you have written ever. Beautiful and perfect and what a blessing to have that memory. You must have a wonderful father. (I won't put that sentence into past tense.)




I just love this post. Completely.

Mine was Death Of A Salesman in college. English Lit 101. DESPISED that book. Give me nonsensical Shakespeare any day. I fully get it. But that crappy novel was the one I used Cliff Notes on.


What a great story about your Dad. Beautifully told, Amy.


i am still reminiscing with HS friends on facebook about how MUCH we all hated Heart of Darkness. Add to that the fact that the teacher showed "Apocalypse Now" (as an "update") to a bunch a sheltered Catholic girls and the whole experience rates as pretty scarring. I'm glad your dad let you read the Cliffs Notes.


Feel such a bond over having met my nemesis in Heart of Darkness. I actually made myself read it again a couple years ago and totally still not a fan.


What a great Dad. I hope I remember to be that gracious with my children.

Miss Grace

My mom had to read Heart of Darkness aloud to me.
I tried and I couldn't do it.
That fucking book.


LOVE this story.

HATE that book.


Oh god, I HATED Heart of Darkness. Couldn't get through it either. We had a week to read it, and I just kept falling asleep or zoning out and I finally just cliff noted it myself. :)

Your father was wonderful.


hahahaha!! oh amy, this post has me laughing hysterically!! mostly because i know the teacher of whom you speak :) as i sit here reading i must confess i actually have my yearbook in front of me (for completely different reasons, i promise), and went leafing through to find the picture that goes along with 'great expectations'. was 'heart of darkness' in high school? i don't remember that one. and here i thought i was in the 'smart' class.


OMG, that was mine too! I could not read it! I couldn't even get through the Clift Notes version. I totally faked my test and made it up as I went along. Got a B on it though! I was damn proud of that B.


Great story. I'm taking notes on how to parent based on your stories about your father.

I was so irritated by HoD, I'd expected to enjoy it, and instead just hated it. I think I've blocked out any memory of what actually happened. It is so nice to hear so many people also hated it.


I didn't remember loving HoD, but I DID have to read it 3 times (once in high school, twice in college). I used my notes from high school and never read that sucker again.

I think my 2 would be Don Quixote (never did finish it, but did very well on the exam thanks to listening in class) and Hamlet. I was supposed to read Hamlet in high school (couldn't finish it, and slept through the movie!), twice in a regular English class in college and then in a Shakespeare class in college. I FINALLY finished it for the Shakespeare class. Still think Hamlet was dreary and needed to go ahead and DO SOMETHING! I also was forced to teach Frankenstein, and spent a decent amount of the time telling the kids that the book sucked.

I love the stories about your dad. I'm glad you had that kind of relationship with him.


They no longer make the print version of Cliff Notes (they're all online) and I happened to be working at a bookstore when they went on clearance, so I bought a ton of them up. I use them the same way your dad did in my own college English classes - to avoid asking test questions about what the CNs prioritize. Sometimes I'll even put a question that's worded exactly like CNs (or SparkNotes, it's free, online brethren that I also check out) except changing one key phrase. Fakes students out every time.


English major here who has been reading you for YEARS and is finally commenting to say:


I got my only B in college literature because of that book and I am still bitter.


Let's say you tried to skim through Heart of Darkness, then watch the movie. The line the character says in the movie sure sounds like, "The whore, the whore." Yeah, should have read the book. Ooops.


What a wonderful memory of your dad. Thanks for sharing. I loved reading this post.


I hated hated hated "Heart of Darkness" as well, but I hated it because it was so inexpressibly boring. I used it for years to cure sleeplessness (no more than 10 pages and *klunk* I was out), until a particularly bad bout of insomnia in my 30s, when I finished the whole boring stupid book one night.

Nothing else has ever worked as well as that did, before I broke it.


What a wonderful story and memory, and what a dad.

Red Badge of Courage was that book for me. I didn't bother with cliff notes even. I read the first chapter and last chapter and bullshit my way through the assignments and tests. I don't think the teacher was even reading our stuff, she just wanted to see 'symbol' and 'metaphor' at least fifty times and we passed. Yay for AP English.


Ahhh, cute story. I haven't been online in a while so I haven't been able to tell you I'm sorry yet, but I'm so sorry to hear. I'm so glad though that you have all the awesome memories.

cindy w

I don't have the English teacher connection (my dad was a loan officer, nothing that helped me out in school AT ALL), but what's funny is that "Heart of Darkness" is the one book in high school that I only read the Cliff's Notes. What a horrible, awful book. I was a total geek, I loved to read, but I just could not force myself through that book.

And I grew up in Mississippi, where they try to make 10th graders develop an appreciation for William Faulkner (which, NO, that stuff is not intended for adolescents to understand). But I could suffer through Faulkner's alcohol-fueled stream-of-consciousness nonsense any day over Joseph fucking Conrad.


Dude, this is a sweet story, and what a great way to honor his memory, honestly. I'm truly touched.

Tangentially related: I had this creepy teacher in college who was RIDICULOUS and taught textual and post-modern studies, i.e., Foucault, Derrida, Saussure. Now, I HATE that shit with a passion as it is, but the ONLY WAY, so help me, he knew how to relate to the sign/signifier/abstract crap was to tie it to sex. That was his LONE GAMBIT. So, in the final hours of desperation, I wrote a long, rambling treatise about masturbation and its relation to literary theory. Something about how the idea of something is meaningless without the actual something, and GOD I DO NOT KNOW, it involved vaginas, there's nothing to say.

The whole year, I pulled C's, which was INFURIATING, as I really worked my ass off. The Vagina Dildo Nonsense Paper? A. A FUCKING A.


I love this post. What a tribute to a really incredible sounding guy. Also? I'm a recovering English major and I loathe Heart of Darkness to this very day.


Put me in the DESPISE that book column too!

My father was an English professor, and I remember the big honor it was when he gave me unrestricted access to his shelves.

And as a teacher, I have exploited similar gaps in the available summaries (or, as in one set of Spark Notes, an outright mistake).


What a great story and a great memory!

HATED Heart of Darkness. It was my freshman year of college Honors English class and I hated it, never finished reading it, and haven't stopped despising it since.


"Catch-22" was my book. For some reason Joseph Heller and I just didn't get along in high school. It was so frustrating to me that classmates LOVED it and LAUGHED about it and thought it was the bees' fucking knees.

This is a gorgeous story, showing even more what a wise man your father was. :)

Camden Narzt

I never read Heart of Darkness in High School, just the back cover, did just fine on the essay and the teacher never found out.

Wound up having to read it for English in university though, but let me tell you the awfulness of that book doesn't come close to the garbage that is "Things fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe, a sort of rebuttal piece trying to make the point that racism is bad (valid) by cramming as much sexism into a book as possible (not-valid and totally undermines his first point).

I wrote the best essay of my life on how awful and retarded a person Achebe is, and got asked to join the honors English program -by the department head no less, because of it.

Sometimes good things come from hating bad literature.


I am so glad someone else didn't like that book. I read Heart of Darkness for school, and I hated it. We all hated it so much we burned it after the exam. My husband is an English major and he was discussing the book one day and I ranted for at least 20 minutes about my hatred for Joseph Conrad.


Thanks for the great story.


This is a great story. I hope my kids have memories like this of me. Heart of Darkness was not an issue with me, I had a great English teacher who understood how hard of a book that was, and managed to get us all through it. But goodness gracious, I am physically unable to read A Tale of Two Cities. I just don't have it in me - that is totally my Cliffs Notes book :)


I don't think I can even put into words how much I hated Heart of Darkness. It was the assigned summer reading book one year, and two of my friends and I got together to read it out loud to each other. That did not make it any more palatable. I shudder at the memories.


Hated (H-A-T-E-D) that book. Had to read it for a Novel & Film class once. Impossible and horrible. The horror, indeed.

Tina C.

totally OT but have to share this thing i just found out about and you're the only person i "know" who's pregnant:

this thing looks AWESOME and i LOVED my miracle blanket, but i would ditch it for this thing.


I hated that book too, but I struggled through it. The one I succumbed to and got the cliff's notes for was Crime and Punishment.


I thought I was the only one who found HoD baffling!

My husband never finished it in high school, and wrote his whole essay under the mistaken assumption that Kurtz's last words were about how much he loved his wife (!). For his long rambling treatise on how the book was actually a reaffirmation of humanity and happiness (!!!) his teacher gave him an A. The moral of this story is that even some teachers hate this book and can't even bring themselves to read their students' essays on it.

(Not yours, Amy, obviously. This was a lovely post and a beautiful story.)


I was an excellent student in high school and college, and I had the Notes for EVERYTHING. Sometimes I read them before the book, sometimes after, sometimes during. I loved comparing my take with the short version, getting a different point of view. Some glitch in my brain made it difficult for me to follow plays and I would never have understood most of Shakespeare without them. Your dad was a good guy.


I love this story -- it's the rare thing that gets me excited about having teenage children (in 10-12 years, that is). I also love that you'll have this story (and I'm guessing many others) for your own teenagers one day.


I hate that book too!!! It was the most hated book of my senior college English class, and we beat it to death with tons of criticisms on the text. I made it through, but I definitely didn't enjoy it. And then I had to watch Apocalypse Now.
I am relieved to know that there are other people in the world who share my perspective.


I did that with every freaking Shakespeare play I ever had to read. And there were A LOT because I was brown-nosed overachiever in every Advanced Placement class available. I don't regret it.


Ugh, why do they make people read that book? Worst ever! I couldn't make it through.


I SHUDDERED remembering Heart of Darkness. That book was terrible - I'm not sure I even made it through the Cliff's Notes version. TERRIBLE BOOK. Why do they make kids read that thing?


Wonderful Post. You captured the moment..

Jen L.

I love this story! Thank you so much for sharing it with us.

HEART OF DARKNESS, however, can suck it.


This was my precise reaction to Heart of Darkness, which I recall being a cult favorite among my AP English peeps. I FEEL SO VALIDATED.


Terrific story. I'm so glad that you shared it.


I loved the post in what you were *actually* writing about, but I'm commenting to say that YES, Heart of Darkness was the most tedious tedium that ever tedioused.


There is something so special between daddies and daughters. My dad has been gone 11 years and I still miss him all the time. It's good to start remembering the little things that made your relationship special.


Your Dad= the true meaning of awesome. :)


What a strange coincidence! I hated Heart of Darkness too and it was the only book I ever used Cliff Notes for! I swear! And I got an A on my exam as well.

Maybe it should be taken out of the curriculum. Or the Cliff notes writer should get a medal.

Jenn Bo

This is a GREAT father-daughter experience. I love this vignette.

Mary Lou

So sweet! You are such a talented writer.

In my freshman honors class we had homework over the summer to read numerous books and give a detailed synopsis. The first day of class my teacher was talking to us about Cliff Notes and I was so confused. I leaned over to a classmate and said, "Who is Cliff? Why did we need to read his notes?"

Lori McBride

I don't know why I have tears in my eyes....but I do. One of the most important and most AMAZING things that our parents leave us with, is memories. I pray that one day...a long time from now, one of my boys will honor me by sharing something similar to this. A memory that will never leave them, and will represent the love we share as mother and son.

Thanks for means a lot. <3


As a fellow Literature nerd, I love this post. I wish I'd been lucky enough to have had your dad as a professor. :)


The root, perhaps, of your grief. You lost a great father; but you did indeed have a great father.


Oh Honey, I'm so happy you had that special relationship with your Dad. It just seems to keep him alive to share stories about him doesn't it?


What a fabulous story.

My truly hated book was Ethan Frome...OMG did I ever hate that book.


Thanks for sharing that really sweet, poignant story. :)


What a sweet story. Sounds like your Dad was pretty wonderful.


I love this story. I had the exact same experience with heart of darkness - the one I could never finish! What a lovely memory with your Dad, thanks for sharing.


That's a great story. I've come to use online versions of CliffsNotes (The FREE ones please and thank you!) but only as an addendum to reading the book itself. I remember reading a selection from Heart of Darkness in first year, and yeeah that was not fun. Glad I didn't have to do the whole thing ;-)


Your dad sounds like a wonderful guy (and a good teacher). I hated Heart of Darkness, too.


Oh boy here I go. First of all, you are doing your father proud. When you started the post I was screaming "he has the Cliffs Notes to understand the cheaters!" but then you elaborated and it was even deeper. I always felt the same about the notes. They can help. I swear the one book that kicked my ass what the fucking Heart of Darkness. Even with the damn notes. I haven't thought of that in 20 years. The one good thing about that book is that it took me down a notch or two. I was thrown by that one. I was a little arrogant until it was assigned to me.


I hated that book, too! I can't remember another "classic" book that was so horrible, in all the years I studied English lit. I haven't thought about that book since high school... 15 years ago. And I love this story about your dad--so touching.


That is about the coolest thing a father could do. Not so much helping with cheating, but understanding and taking the side of his kid. What a great memory to have. P.S. It has taken me 5 years to read Anna Karenina. It's not that I don't understand it, I just can't get into it. She drives me crazy.


This post makes me love you, and your dad, even more. I CANNOT STAND THAT EFFING BOOK. Symbolism blah blah blah, the man could not write and should not have been allowed to own a pen.


I hated that book, too. My college roommate called it "Fart Unharnessed." I think she got it assigned as a term paper or something. Terrible piece of literature. I hope it drops off reading lists before my kids get too far along in school.

Chris in NY

Three separate classes I had to read that f*&*&%$) book. Ugh. I did read it the first time, then just used my annotated book for subsequent classes. Why do these teachers love that book. Ack.

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