Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

When Cliff Notes aren’t enough….write your own? or How to Read a Book

Written by: on September 8, 2016

Look Familiar?

Look Familiar?

When I was in high school and college in the late 80’s and early 90’s Cliff’s Notes (then with the apostrophe) were a sort of a taboo in the schools I attended.  [Cliff’s Notes, if you aren’t familiar are ‘study guides’ designed to help you pass a class/assignment without having read the text. In the USA, at least, they were the original, although Spark Notes are more popular now.  I have been told ‘Letts Notes’ are the British equivalent] Everyone knew about them, most people never admitted to using them but occasionally some brazen student would flaunt the booklet as a sort of bright yellow and black badge of defiance and rebellion.  This was usually accomplished by casually – or trying really hard to look casual – carrying the booklet in-between a few books and carry it to class.

I would love to say that I never used Cliff’s Notes as some moral stance as a nod to intellectual curiosity and academic integrity , but the truth is, I just never saw the upside.  Enough people were using them that I always thought it would be more work and take more time to make my work original using the same cheat sheet than it would be to just do the actual reading.

I hadn’t thought about Cliffs Notes in a long time, but they were the first thing that came to my mind when I began reading ‘How to Read a Book’ by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren.

In the first chapter Adler says, ‘There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding’ (p.3).  Cliffs Notes and the like are a fairly useful, if morally/academically questionable, way to gain facts about a particular piece of literature, but they are woefully inadequate as a means of gaining real, deep understanding about the purpose or meaning of a book.  Or, to put it differently, the purpose of this book is to help the reader develop skills in ‘the art of reading’, skills and operations that, when properly used by the reader allow the mind to pass ‘from understanding less to understanding more.’ (p.8)

So, then, the goal of this book and the type of reading it illustrates is not to produce, upon completion a reader who can necessarily recite lots of but rather a reader who has wrestled with what the author’s message is, the unity of the book and gained some level of understanding about these things and the subject matter at hand.  This is not the kind of thing that can be gleaned simply by working through a Cliffs Notes booklet.

As I read through the book and found reinforcement for several techniques and practices I have developed as well as (hopefully) learned a few new tricks, I was struck by the rather ironic idea that Cliff – or whoever writes his notes for him – probably had to employ many of the techniques and practices that Adler espouses to be able to produce the work that allows so many to move through their education without learning to get to the fourth – Syntopical – level of reading.

So, beyond the practical types, operations and techniques my biggest takeaway from this introductory text is this: The work of reading – and of gaining some knowledge from that reading – is just that: work….. it is an ongoing process that has to be undertaken alone  – don’t take this literally, there is great value in working through this together, but the value is only available to you if you do the work yourself and or participate in it.

This means that you can’t really take a shortcut – knowing what the cliffnotes tells you isn’t really the same as reading the book. And really, we all know this already, but the temptation to take the shortcut is there just the same.  And the truth is, that sometimes maybe all we need are the Cliff Notes, but other times we need to do the work to write those notes ourselves and the key is to be able to know which is which or, as the title goes, knowing how to read a book.


About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

11 responses to “When Cliff Notes aren’t enough….write your own? or How to Read a Book”

  1. Katy Lines says:

    I wonder if there are Cliff’s Notes for How to Read a Book.

  2. Yep- reading books is more work than I thought! Who knew? Good thoughts.

  3. Mary Walker says:

    No gain without pain. I tried Cliff’s Notes once in high school. I realized that it didn’t answer the questions the teacher was asking and so I had to read the book anyway.
    Great post, Chip!

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Enjoyed reading your post Chip! Really like the Cliff’s Notes analogy. I remember them well! But you’re right, “no shortcuts” at this stage.

  5. Stu Cocanougher says:

    I was always conflicted that, at my college, all of my professors forbid us to use Cliff’s Notes. Yet, our campus bookstore was filled with them.
    I appreciated the section on syntopical reading. I also appreciated the earlier chapter which discussed why some books needed to be deeply analysis, while others simply skimmed. For the latter, Cliff Notes might be a good fit.

  6. Lynda Gittens says:

    Oh Chip,
    Bringing back the Cliff Notes. Those are college memories. One thing about seminary, I don’t think the cliff notes have any interest (smile)

  7. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    I was introduced to cliff notes in high school. I never really cared for them. I was always worried about missing something from the original text…LOL I do not think Adler would not be opposed to Cliff Notes especially for skimming. However, I think he would want us to be objective in how we read them and then go back to the original text to see what the author was intending to communicate. 🙂

  8. Ah, Cliff’s Notes. As a teacher I used to look up Cliff’s and Spark notes so that I could test on material that was NOT in them.
    You make a great point that there are no short cuts to real understanding. So how do we pull out those important notes without slogging through every word? I think this is where Adler’s hints and tools might help. What do you think?

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