If you’ve ever been assigned to read a novel, you have most likely used a website such as SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, Shmoop or another online student study guide. I have used these websites many times for short summaries when I couldn’t finish a book due to lack of time or interest, but also when I need a deeper analysis. Some classmates have chosen to ditch the assigned book altogether, opting to surf the internet for answers. While these sites may be reliable for getting good grades on quizzes, they are part of a larger problem facing English classes at every school and grade level.
We do not learn from literature in the same way we learn from a textbook. If our educational ethos continues to perpetuate the idea that we can, we risk unjustly condemning new literary analyses and making reading for pleasure a relic of a bygone era. Literature is an art form and although we are desensitized to that notion, we cannot deny that there is a fundamental difference between reading a book and reading about a book. If I told two people to watch a movie and one of them watched it while the other looked up a summary online, wouldn’t the one who watched the film have a better understanding of it? The same goes for music, theater and even novels. The internet brought with it unimaginable capabilities, but when sites offer students a way to feign experience, the web takes away an essential piece of the study of literature.
If everyone reads the exact same analysis from SparkNotes, which students and teachers know is not uncommon, it is far less likely that a student would attempt to introduce an alternate view of a text. Due to the fact that this culture is becoming so popular, the students analysis would be poorly evaluated because most students wouldn’t have the necessary knowledge to support or criticize their interpretation.
To be clear, this is not entirely the fault of students. With the way literature is taught in school today, there’s no wonder that resources like CliffsNotes would become popular. Classes often proclaim that The Great Gatsby is simply about the American dream, rather than teaching students to arrive at this conclusion — or a completely different one — on their own. There is no reason for us to truly appreciate a work of literature if we are just forced to recite a textbook understanding of it on essays or tests. The only thing this formulaic approach has accomplished is the conditioning of students to think of reading a novel as as assignment when, in reality, it is so much more.
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