Canon Fodder


For years, English professors and well-meaning bibliophiles have vilified Cliffs Notes, bemoaning the “study aides” as an enemy of
literary culture that has discouraged the reading of original texts. But the real problem
with Cliffs Notes, two entrepreneurial postgrads believe, is that they’re simply impenetrably dense.

“If you’re going to buy Cliffs Notes, you might as well read the book,” says Michael Burgess, a 21-year-old graduate of Vanderbilt and cofounder of, a Web site that offers students free plot summaries and term papers. The driving philosophy behind Schoolbytes, which premiered late last month, is to “design something a five-year-old could understand.” They may have overshot that goal: Schoolbytes plot bites make Classics Illustrated comic books seem long-winded.

“Steinbeck is a really weird author who was a loner. He loved writing about California, and loved nature. That’s about it,” reads a bio. The character sketch of Curley, the foil against whom Of Mice and Men develops its passion play, is typical in both the brevity and vernacular of Schoolbytes’ style of exegesis: “Curley is the son of the boss and this guy is a big asshole. He’s mean to everyone and doesn’t pay attention to his wife at all.”

One might question the value of a literary service that describes Lady Macbeth as “a power hungry bitch.” But defense for Schoolbytes, or at least for the concept behind it, comes from the oddest of quarters. Dr. Margaret Ferguson is on the executive council of the Modern Language Association, not a set you’d expect to laud a site whose home page reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue/You hate school and we do too.” But Ferguson, a professor of Renaissance literature at UC Davis, says that anything that piques students’ interest in the classics is worth its weight in library books.

“My colleagues consider Cliffs Notes a travesty, and I guess they’d consider Schoolbytes a travesty of a travesty, but I say more power to them, if translating texts into this language gets students interested in literature.” In fact, Ferguson says, she herself guides students to the Cliffs Notes version of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, since the language of the epic poem is “deliberately complex.” She adds the obvious— and presumably unheeded— caveat that Schoolbytes should not be used as a surrogate for the real McCoy, “unless it’s for a junior high school book report.”

Reducing the Great Books to the size of a zen koan might prove a profitable business plan: the site, which plans to make its revenue off advertising, claims to have received 80,000 hits in its first 10 days online.