Approximately six years ago, I walked into my AP language and composition class prepared to take what I thought would be a relatively simple quiz on the previous night’s reading of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
I took my seat in the back of the class and borrowed a pencil from the girl in front of me (yeah, I’m one of those people) and wrote my name on the scantron.
But when Ms. Richardson finally handed me the quiz, my heart instantly sunk when I saw the words “Quote Quiz.”
My issue was that I hadn’t actually read the chapters; why would I, when the summary is so eloquently trimmed by the experts of Sparknotes?
Well, that didn’t exactly help me, considering the summary didn’t include who said each of the quotes I was staring blankly at. I got one of the 10 questions right.
Fast forward to today, I wish I could tell you it was a lesson learned — about how I realized the error of my ways and read the actual book from then on — but I’d be lying.
Instead, I’ve spent the majority of the time I should be reading justifying why tools like Sparknotes should be legitimate replacements for the books I really didn’t want to read.
Here goes nothing…
To start, I would like to say that I fully understand the horrible irony of a writer, and editor, telling people he hates reading.
In actuality, I read a great deal online and a non-fiction sports book every blue moon; I just hate fiction. I couldn’t tell you the name of the last fiction book I read that didn’t start with the words, “Harry Potter and the …” but it was almost definitely in high school, and it was
probably “Fight Club.”
But my logic comes from the idea that many
of the great books we’re told to read are
nothing but different translations of ones made before it.
Look at Homer’s epics the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” Since they were written, they’ve
been translated about 1,000 times, and that doesn’t count the multiple generations
where they were handed down through oral tradition.
There are dozens of different versions of each available in English alone, which all have slightly different wording. These differences don’t take away from the stories, but they are noticeable when looked at side by side.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that they are some of the coolest stories ever, but it does make reading the dense language of an old translation useless. What remains important are the characters, the plot development and the deeper meaning — all of which I can understand if a summary is good.
I loved “1984,” but when I went over the Sparknotes after reading it to prepare for a test, those same things were conveyed just as well.
Furthermore, when looking at a book that has been translated from another language, why should any particular version be taken as superior? All languages include words that don’t translate at all into English, so studying diction seems silly when you don’t know if any given word is truly what the author meant.
So when you say that reading a book’s summary instead of the book is cheating, I say I’m just reading the latest translation.
You say potato, I say potato (that expression doesn’t work very well in print, does it?).
Not only is my translation in common vernacular — it is written by qualified
professionals. This isn’t like trusting Wikipedia, where it can be edited by anyone who wishes, or watching the movie, where I’m expected to
trust the interpretation of someone like Michael Bay. These are people who have taught lessons on the book and know it from cover to cover.
And of course the new translation should be a trimmed version. Not only does just about everyone seem to have some degree of ADHD (with computers and smart phones shortening our attention span to the second), but our entire society is based on streamlining everything. Time is money.
Our books should go through that same process. People aren’t becoming illiterate — they just want to use their time more efficiently.
On a final note though, I’d like to say that nothing I’ve thought of has been able to justify my using Sparknotes to bypass good ol’ Huck Finn.
The entire purpose of that class was to study how the story was written, not it’s plot, and that isn’t anything you can pick up on through chapter summaries.
For those English majors out there who now hate me, take solace in knowing that at least I understand that much, and that I’ll never be seen in any of your classes that involve reading a book.
And to Ms. Richardson, I’m sorry; I should have read.