IT IS FINAL EXAM week at the University of Maryland, and panic is spreading among students like Tom. With just under six hours to go before his exam in "Horror Films and Gothic Fiction," Tom probably ought to be in the library reviewing his lecture notes, taking one last look through the assigned books and thinking great thoughts. But, no . . . he is in the student union bookstore going through the display rack of Monarch Notes , those familiar red-and-black pamphlets that offer summaries of literary classics. The hour is late, and he has no time for browsing. He passes quickly over Huckleberry Finn, The Canterbruy Tales and Red Badge of Courage , and grabs the notes on Edgar Allen Poe -- a slim volume on which will rest his hopes for his grade-point average.
"I just can't read the book now," he says. "It's over 300 pages, and I'm cramped for time. Besides, all you have to know is the plot and something about each character."
Tom, a junior business major, has just used "lit notes" or some of his other courses, and he is a satisfied customer. He's confident that a student can (as the bookstore's advertisement says) "Make It With Monarchs."
"Yeah, I've done better on some papers by just using notes than by doing my own work," he says. "In an American studies course I spent a couple of days on a paper about Jane Addams, and the teacher gave me a c. My next paper in that course was on The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin , so I just bought the notes, didn't read the book and typed up a paper in a couple of hours the night before. The teacher said it was much better than the first paper, and I got a b+."
Although there are undoubtedly many students who never use them, nearly all college bookstores carry Cliff's or Monarch , and several million copies are sold nationally each year, despite a general distaste for them on the part of English professors.
Notes-users at Maryland, who probably represent a good cross section of consumers, buy them out of a range of motives. Some students get them to supplement the ideas they pick up from reading the assigned books hoping to gain an edge in the mad scramble for grades that is the current norm on campuses. Others are so baffled by the classic works of literature that they turn to the notes for hints on interpretations. They know that Moby Dick is about a whale, but beyond that they haven't a clue.
"I used them in my Shakespeare course, because I just could not understand what Shakespeare was trying to tell me," says Beth, a senior at College Park. "I needed help on the exam, and I knew the only way I could get it was with Cliff's Notes . With Mcbeth , I read the play first, then used the notes to help on a paper. But with King Lear , I couldn't understand one word, so I just read the Cliff's Notes . I guess my mind was just not intelligent enough for Shakespeare. Maybe 20 years from now, I'll sit down and read the play, but for now I had to do it. It was the only way."
Mike, a junior, is blunt about how he uses the summaries, "for me, they're a cramming tool to compensate for laziness. Living here on campus there are so many things I'd rather do than sit down and read some book I'm not interested in -- like Homer and some of that old garbage that I really can't relate to. You put off the reading to the point where you can't read the whole book and get anything out of it. You need a shortcut, and the notes are very handy. They extract the high points for you, minus all the garbage you don't need, all that stuff that boggles up your brain."
Extracting the high points via the summaries results in some remarkable literary interpretations. Take this one from a Maryland freshman who used the notes on Ivanhoe last year in a high school history course. "What I got was that it was pretty much an exact parallel to the Robin Hood story. They were all archers, and there was some guy in there who wanted to marry a nobleman's daughter," And? "That was pretty much the extent of it."
Both Cliff's and Monarch are triumphs of commercial ingenuity. Cliff's were put on the market in 1958 by Cliff Hillegass, a salesman and manager with a Nebraska testbook brokerage, who bought rights to a series of Shakespeare notes being published in Canada. He and his wife ran the notes business out of their house in lincoln for the first several years, gradually getting their product accepted in bookstores and adding titles in American literature. Monarch , which was the brain child of an entrepreneurial student at Columbia University in the early 1960s, was acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1967. Both companies use English professors and graduate students to write the notes. Cliff's volume on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , incidentally, was written by the novelist John Gardner, who is also an expert in medieval studies.
Most English professors don't like for their students to use the notes, idealistically preferring the "old-fashioned" procedure of reading the book and forming independent ideas. "If a student wants to read Monarch Notes on The Great Gatsby , the only person he is cheating is himself," says Jackson Bryer, a Maryland professor who teaches a course on Hemingway and Fitzgerald. "He probably can get away with it, but he is the ultimate loser."
Other professors have ways of preempting them. "I used to teach a survey course in Shakespeare where students would start using them," says Rod Jellema, a colleague of Bryer's. "I developed my own little way of pulling the rug out from under them and letting my students know they had wasted their money. Because the notes are largely plot sumaries, I would spend eight or 10 minutes at the beginning of a lecture dealing with the plot of each play." He laughs: "Then I'd say, 'Now that we've got that straight, let's talk about the play's language.'"
There is mixed opinion among students about how successfully professors can be conned with lit notes. For every experience like Tom's b+ on his Ben Franklin paper, there are others who tell of getting caught. "My high school English teacher asked us to read Crime and Punishment in about three and a half weeks," says Ben, a freshman who attended Montgomery County's high-pressure Walt Whitman High School. "I just didn't have time to read that much, so I ended up reading about 50 pages of it, and then got the rest from the notes. When it came test time, I just didn't have it. I had a shell, some of the plot and characters, but not the nuances. I didn't do very well at all -- a c or d or something like that. I think it's better to skim the book than to use the notes alone. In the end, you pay -- always,"
Some students are also a little embarrassed about using notes. "I feel a little guilty sometimes when I haven't read the book," says Jamie, a junior. "I know I'm missing a lot, because 30 pages of a novel may be condensed to half a page in the notes. I'm supposed to be taking the course to learn something, and I know I'm cheating myself by taking the easy way out."
Mike, the one who couldn't relate to Homer, has no such qualms: "Are you kidding? As long as I get the grade, I'm satisfied. Grades have a direct bearing on jobs and money and the future. My parents live well, and I want a job where I can live well, too. If that means using notes, I'll do it.
"It's not that I'm a dummy. I've got a 2.7 overall."