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Irma’s Cliffs Notes Crusade Is Worth Joining

Ellen Girardeau Kempler lives in Laguna Beach.

A scene like this one at Laguna Beach’s Latitude 33 bookshop probably plays out at countless stores across the country: A parent of a teenager (say, a mother) saunters in and asks the clerk if the store carries Cliffs Notes. At most places, the bookstore staff would search the inventory and either find or offer to order the desired volume.

Not so the woeful Cliffs Notes seeker at Latitude 33.

If this parent talks to a sales associate like me, she will be sent away with a simple, “No, we don’t carry them.” But if she asks store manager Irma Wolfson, she will have to answer some questions and listen to some advice.

The typical Irma/Cliffs Notes Seeker conversation goes like this:

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Irma: “What book do you need the Cliffs Notes for?”

Cliffs Notes Seeker: “Animal Farm.”

Irma: “The book is shorter than the Cliffs Notes. Why do you need them?”

CNS: “Well, it’s to help my son answer some questions on a test.”

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Irma: “Wouldn’t he learn more if he just read the book?”

CNS: “Well ... I don’t know.”

Irma: “I’m sorry. We don’t carry Cliffs Notes.”

If you were this customer, you would probably stomp out to continue your search in a less strident store. But maybe you would think twice.

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For students trying to ace their classes, Cliffs Notes offer an easy way to study required texts.

Many parents--some who may have used Cliffs Notes themselves--probably see nothing wrong with them.

But times have changed. In the 1970s, when many of today’s parents attended high school, most teenagers could slack off and still get into a good university.

Today’s students have no such luxury. They know that top test scores and grades are essential for college acceptance. At the same time, admissions boards expect them to devote time to community service and extracurricular activities. Such demands pressure even the most dedicated students.

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Cliffs Notes summarize books’ plots, characters, themes and settings, making it possible to cheat on an exam. An Internet search using the term “Cliffs Notes” yields a list that includes CheatBooks.com, with a link to the Cliffs Notes Web site.

Some high school students may feel they need to cut corners. They may even decide not to do the assigned reading if Cliffs Notes or online research can suffice.

For example, a teacher at the local high school recently assigned an Athol Fugard play for honors English. Unlike most books Latitude 33 stocks for the high school, this one was gone in a week. When Irma commented to one student that this seemed like an especially popular assignment, he said, “We have to read it because there’s no information about it anywhere on the Internet.”

As the parent of a fifth-grader who already is feeling the homework/activity pinch, I understand the Cliffs Notes seeker’s impulse to ease her son’s burden. As a once-rebellious teen who nevertheless was accepted by the University of California, I do not believe occasional academic lapses in high school should destroy college prospects.

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Still, as an avid reader I have come to respect books for unique qualities that simple summaries cannot replace. Books take us outside of ourselves to experience other times, places and viewpoints. Reading instills diligence and patience and teaches critical thinking skills.

As parents, we owe it to our children to take Irma’s admonitions about Cliffs Notes seriously. By reading to our children, taking them to bookstores and libraries and reading ourselves, we teach them to value books and learning.

Take Irma’s word for it; that’s something Cliffs Notes will never do.


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