CliffsNotes Are Too Hard

By 02/03/2011

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There’s a story this week in the Wall Street Journal entitled “To Read or Not to Read . . . That Is Now the Question.”   It reports on a new initiative by reality-show producer Mark Burnett and AOL to produce funny videos based on CliffsNotes guides to literary classics.  They are “humorous shorts,” the Journal says, and Burnett will bring the skills he demonstrated with the hit TV shows Survivor and The Apprentice to Hamlet and The Odyssey.  Each video will run for five minutes with a one-minute version available for mobile telephones.

“The idea is to bring classic works of fiction to the online masses by using humorous, irreverent shorts that still manage to present the plot, characters and themes to the viewer,” says Joseph Castelo of Coalition Films.  Burnett identifies yet another benefit: “We want to use comedy in these videos to help kids remember key points and maybe inspire them to actually read the books, too.”

What to say?  Comedy to render Macbeth and The Scarlet Letter, and irreverence, too?  The complexities of Huckleberry Finn in five minutes, including plot, characters and themes?  And the idea that these videos will be a gateway to actually reading the originals . . . well, the notion has been floated a thousand times before and I know of no scientific evidence of its effectiveness.  The remarkable thing about this story isn’t that a media corporation has a plan to tap a homework habit to boost traffic on its web sites.  It is that the leaders of the initiative can dress it up in education-speak and keep a straight face.

-Mark Bauerlein

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