Don’t Bother with SparkNotes (the Book is Better)

Tomorrow the reading is due. Flipping through the required pages reveals it as lengthy, dense, and probably confusing. Upcoming essays, presentations, and group projects have buried you up to your neck and, of course, to stay afloat a shortcut seems necessary. It’s a waste of time to read when a summary can be found with a mere Google search: SparkNotes. Scrolling down for minutes in lieu of turning pages for hours appears an economical investment. However, doing so robs you of rewards and opportunities not so easily and immediately available; the work has been assigned to do more than eat away at precious free time.  

Throughout my early years of high school, SparkNotes was an invaluable resource. Like many of my peers, I wanted good grades but wasn’t willing to exert seemingly unwarranted effort on readings that I deemed unworthy of my time. Fifty pages? Seriously? It’s not like I’ll ever use this later in life. The sentiment is familiar to me. I know what it’s like to be faced with a long, boring section of a history book, novel, etc. and then to experience great relief upon discovering an online summary for the assigned text. Ha! Take that, teacher! I would scoff privately to myself, then go on to perform well in class discussions and assessments having applied minimal effort. A strange sense of pride would occasionally follow, as if cheating was a triumph over a corrupt system concocted by draconian, scheming sadists cackling as they plotted new ways to torment their helpless students. I was content knowing that I could get by without doing the work.

This changed midway through my third year of high school. The assignment was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and, after having skimmed through bits of Romeo and Juliet in my first year, I wasn’t looking forward to trudging through another archaic hodgepodge of excruciating iambic-pentametric lines. To read or not to read? SparkNotes, again, would suffice. However, with a smug grin, my teacher issued a challenge of sorts. He asserted that he was well aware that “kids don’t read anymore, because reading is hard.” Effortlessly, he had fanned flames of fury in my prideful young heart. I would do it to spite him. I’ll show you reading, Mr. Teacher. You think this is hard?

But as I engaged with the text, I found that a new fire began fueling my dedication to finish the play without the aid of an online summary. It was no longer spite, but curiosity. I found myself invested in Shakespeare’s dynamic characters, tragic plot, elegant writing. Then, once I had finished the play, I had an epiphany: the effort I had put into not “wasting time” by reading easily digestible summaries of challenging texts ironically ended up being an even greater waste of time, for, by dismissing previous readings, I had dismissed opportunities to learn and grow. Education provides a framework to facilitate self-exploration; the harder you work, the more gratifying and abundant the reward. Once I committed myself to the text, my skills in analysis, reading, and writing benefitted, and a passion brewed within me, something that wouldn’t have happened if I had merely glanced over the SparkNotes page. Now I adore Shakespeare’s works and have even read Macbeth a second and third time… for fun.

I adopted a new perspective on my education, one that my teachers had been urging all of their students to adopt for so long. School is not just a necessary step towards a lucrative career; it’s a time to explore passions and expand our minds. Every reading, even if it doesn’t interest me or appear relevant to my future, is still an opportunity to apply oneself to: and, if it truly offers nothing else, reading skills only develop from reading. In my experience, working for self-improvement is far more rewarding than cheating for grades, because true reading requires that you gain more than a surface-level understanding of content. Skimming a summary, therefore, is not reading in its true form. True reading is an engagement with the writer’s carefully chosen words, an opportunity to feel and think about the depth and meaning between the lines and savour the fleeting connection with another human mind. Even though “reading is hard” sometimes, as my high school teacher claimed it would be, overcoming that difficulty through honest effort is a lesson in self-improvement and self-discipline and an opportunity to experience the fulfilling rewards. Anyone can do it if they apply themselves.

I enjoy reading now. It’s not the chore it used to be — and that’s a relief because currently, as a college student, even more is being asked of me in terms of time and money. There are times when I look back on my academic career and a feeling of disappointment grips me as I realize that if I had worked harder I would not only be a better student, but a more knowledgeable and capable individual. I am grateful, though, that I began drastically shifting my attitude. Better late than never.

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