A Synopsis of A Synopsis

The assigned reading books seem very daunting to students. One easy solution involves using only simple summaries of those books, but this method and these summaries in general lead to missing out on why the teachers carefully selected those books.

Book summaries, such as SparkNotes and CliffNotes, provide students with simple and easier-to-digest versions of books. But where the misuse of these summaries comes in is when one uses them as substitutes for their novel counterparts, skipping out on the novel, in an attempt to save time or to meet a rapidly approaching test deadline. 

Using summaries this way means removing the personal aspect of those stories. “What SparkNotes or other paraphrased presentations of these novels do is it strips the book of its life,” said English teacher Fr. Patrick Friend. “It strips the story of those things that make a story a story. Novels are supposed to be an entry into another world, and I for one don’t want to live in a world of just cold hard facts.”

Students lose the story by taking advantage of paraphrased works.“Yes, you’re still getting the main points and a certain grasp of the book,” said English teacher Mr. Dylan Owen. “But you’re not able to put it in your own words and perspective because you’re reading someone else’s summary… You should get to define it your own way.”

By taking that path of least resistance, students lose valuable future skills. “Ironically, kids read the summaries to free up time,” said English teacher Mr. Edward Dodge, “but ultimately what it does is actually limit their freedom if what we’re trying to do is learning how to think. People who study the liberal arts recognize patterns. That means they’re not locked into a particular field. They understand patterns in human behavior, they understand patterns in data. They can recognize those things.”

These young audiences also leave behind human emotion through ill use of summaries. “Simply exercising the ability to perceive the world through someone else’s eyes builds empathy and makes a person more thoughtful about his approach to others and his overall decision-making,” said Mr. Dodge. “Again, if all we’re doing is reading summaries, we’re experiencing life in a superficial manner, not really living life, and I think that’s limiting.”

Young men also lose the excitement of the novel on this path. “[When reading], you’re able to remove yourself from your current world and put yourself in the shoes of somebody else somewhere, ” said Mr. Owen. “So you learn what it’s like to be them, and you miss out on an opportunity to gain pleasure from something you’re going to be able to do for the rest of your life.”

Using these websites for their unintended purposes also comes from previously rooted issues. “The negative effect does not come from the SparkNotes.” said Fr. Friend. “I think it comes before that. The negative effect comes from most of the information that we receive now is so passive. We don’t have to give ourselves to it at all.…and so because we don’t practice the ability of immersing ourselves into something else, it becomes very difficult to give ourselves to a novel.” 

This manipulation of these websites is rooted in modern human psychology of the student. “What’s the first question when reading a novel for a student today,” said Fr. Friend. “It’s ‘Am I entertained right now?’ and two seconds later it is, ‘Am I still entertained?’ Well, maybe it’s not entertaining, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of your time. Just because something isn’t eye-catching or attention grabbing, that doesn’t mean that there’s not something beautiful or true there.”

These summaries also nullify the worth of reading. “The value of books comes not only from their ideas, which of course can often be gleaned from a summary,” says Wall Street Journal bestselling author Scott Young in his article “What’s Wrong with Just Reading Summaries.” Mr. Young continues, “[The value of books comes] from being a difficult mental task that requires focus and simultaneously guides deeper thinking.”

Through summaries, one loses the ability of the experience of a book. “Reading a hard book is more than just the ideas you obtain from it,” said Mr. Young. “Thinking about the book’s content while you read it is what matters. So a really long, good book on a topic will provoke much longer reflection and therefore have a much larger impact than a short summary or perhaps even many short summaries.”

Summary websites are not fully to blame for these problems. “Technology isn’t necessarily evil,” said Mr. Owen, “but the things inside of it can be. Going straight to Course Hero, SparkNotes, or all those things is just easier than reading.”

A summary can assist the reader in enlightenment, but only when used for their intended purpose: elaboration. “I’m a firm believer in SparkNotes, Course Hero, and LitCharts,” said Mr. Owen. “I think all those things are great. But they are most beneficial when you read and follow up with them.  If students would read the book  and then use Course Hero and SparkNotes, they would form a deeper understanding with the novel itself.”

Summaries can enlighten the reader and give that reader a look into someone else’s mind. “I read stuff and want to look at someone else’s analysis,” said Mr. Dodge. “Other people are going to see things I didn’t see and help me to understand them more. It’s a matter of putting second things first: the first thing is to read it yourself, and the second thing is to join into a broader conversation. But If I’m just reading summaries, I’m not joining in on that conversation. I’m eavesdropping on it.”

Although summaries can be used for further exploration of a book, they also lack what a good book has. “While summaries give you the plot points, there’s a lack of depth. You can get the plot points, but there’s so much more to a work of literature than who did what when,” said Mr. Dodge. “There’s a feeling behind it that you just don’t get if you read a summary.”

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