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Jewish World Review May 9, 2001 / 16 Iyar 5761

Philip Terzian

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Consumer Reports

No, but I read the book: Remembering the founder of Cliffs Notes -- SURELY the death of Cliff K. Hillegass, at the age of 83, cries out for a metaphor.

In 1958 Mr. Hillegass was a book salesman in Lincoln, Nebraska, when he stumbled upon the idea of producing brief "study guides" for students on the great works of literature. Cliffs Notes, with their characteristic black-and-yellow-striped covers, became immediate best sellers, furnishing high school and college students with the rudiments of novels, plays and poems without taking the time (or effort) to read them.

From a business perspective, Mr. Hillegass's career was a standard rags-to-riches story. He had been a graduate student in physics and geology, but his scientific career faltered, and he was working for the Nebraska Book Co. when inspiration struck. His employer was not interested in the idea for Cliffs Notes, so Mr. Hillegass borrowed $4,000 from a local bank, produced the first editions in his basement, and the rest is cultural history. Two years ago he sold Cliffs Notes to IDG Books Worldwide Inc. of Foster City, California, for more than $14 million. Tens of thousands of undergraduates earned diplomas because of Cliff K. Hillegass, who died a rich man.

There is a parable of capitalism in there somewhere. Mr. Hillegass did have some sense that, in profiting from the Western canon, he was not-so-subtly contributing to its neglect: In each edition of Cliffs Notes he would primly caution students that "a thorough appreciation of literature allows no shortcuts." But of course, Cliffs Notes were nothing but shortcuts, and that brief warning message was removed from editions when IDG Books Worldwide Inc. took control. Who needs "a thorough appreciation of literature," anyway?

Good question. The irony is that those best equipped to furnish the answer are least inclined to do so. The study of literature in American universities is now captive to politics, or waist-deep in trivia.

It used to be fashionable to laugh at the meetings of organizations like the Modern Language Association for the pleasure members took in impenetrable subjects: "The Use and Misuse of Identity in the Novels of Louis-Ferdinand Celine," etc. Now, of course, we should be grateful for professors of literature who can identify Celine. And conventions drown in papers on race, gender and pop culture: You are more likely to learn about drag queens or Madonna videos at the MLA than Oliver Goldsmith. In my 1956 edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass there is an introduction by Prof. Gay Wilson Allen of Rutgers who laments the pervasiveness of lowbrow culture in America with an offhand (and derisive) reference to "I Love Lucy." Professor Allen is, of course, long dead, but Lucille Ball is the subject of doctoral dissertations.

Where do Cliffs Notes fit into all this? Only as a symptom. On the same day that Mr. Hillegass's death was announced The Washington Post published a story on the decline of religious observance in Western Europe. The great cathedrals are full of tourists but empty of worshippers. Guides at the National Gallery of Art in London complain that young visitors are no longer aware of what the "INRI" label stands for in crucifixion paintings (the Latin abbreviation for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") and don't recognize the gent with the halo communing with birds (St. Francis of Assisi). For touring students the most exciting aspect of Canterbury Cathedral is that Thomas Becket was murdered on the premises, although they don't know why, and are otherwise impervious to their surroundings.

You can't blame Cliffs Notes for the ignorance of Europeans, nor should we worry too much about a world where bookstores stock guides for "dummies" or Sting is honored for his contribution to civilization. We are always looking backward to a world that never was, and the truth is that High Culture has always been the province of the fortunate few. In mediaeval Europe, when Canterbury Cathedral was built and, presumably, teeming with Christians, the vast majority of the faithful were peasants languishing in ditches, cold, illiterate and largely engaged in avoiding starvation. The Victorian England that featured middle-class families gathering together to read serial Dickens novels, or flocking to concerts and uplifting lectures, also witnessed the invention of the tabloid press, but was spared such distraction as radio, television, movies and CDs.

You cannot expect young people who aspire to a Lexus to care very much about "a thorough appreciation of literature," especially when the academic world seems determined to sabotage standards of knowledge and culture.

Cliffs Notes were premised, at least, on the notion that the study of literature is part of education, that there are such things as canons and classics, and that knowledge is more important than pleasure.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal