Calling All SparkNoters and Bibliophiles!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Issue 15, Volume 110

By Christine Lin, Angela Cai 

Cover Image

The first-period bell rings. You’ve just finished reading the last SparkNotes page of “Macbeth,” and as you head into English class, the guilt starts to sink in. “I should’ve just read the book last night,” you think. But at the time, figuring out who Carole Baskin killed in “Tiger King” just seemed more important than figuring out who killed Macbeth.

At a school where finding free time is a rarity, our perception of reading has greatly changed since we entered high school. While some students still remain avid readers, reading—whether inside or outside of the classroom—often feels like a chore to many, much less something one would do for personal enjoyment.

Junior Jiahe Wang laments her middle school days when homework was scarce and time was aplenty. “I used to haul home a huge tote bag full of books every month from the public library,” she said. In retrospect, she was surprised at how she had enough free time to read as many as three books a day.

When asked what books she enjoyed, Jiahe Wang recommended Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” For any readers willing to venture down a dark and scandalous path, “Lolita” is a refreshing break from traditional books assigned in the classroom due to its controversial plot of a middle-aged professor who becomes sexually involved with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. “[The book] is often misunderstood by readers,” Jiahe Wang said. “But it lets you peek inside the mind of a psychopathic pedophile and is wickedly funny. The prose is stylish and has clever puns and references littered throughout.”

Echoing Jiahe Wang’s remark about the surplus of free time she used to have, sophomore Rajhasree Paul recounts the group workshops she used to participate in during middle school. Every week, they would decide which chapters to read and have discussions. “It was kind of like a book club,” Paul described. “I was good friends with people in my group and had a lot of fun.”

Of the many books they read, Paul’s all-time favorite is Rita Williams-Garcia’s “One Crazy Summer.” Taking place during a tumultuous time in American history, this historical-fiction novel recounts the adventures of three kids named Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern after their parents left them for a new life in another state. “I learned so much about [the] American civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party, and other black militant groups,” Paul said. “It introduced me to a whole new world with struggles I was never even aware of.”

However, as school progresses, free time can be a rare commodity. Mounting pressure from missed deadlines, piles of homework, and sleep deprivation can make the idea of sitting down to read for an hour seem far-fetched. As a result, tempting alternatives such as SparkNotes, Shmoop, and CliffsNotes grow in popularity. Offering detailed chapter-to-chapter summaries that can be read in minutes, these websites have become a holy grail for struggling students.

For many, these websites are a frequent find in their browser history. “I only started relying on SparkNotes once high school reared its ugly head, and even then very rarely in freshman year,” Paul said. Before class started, Paul would turn to these websites to quickly read the summaries of the previous night’s assigned chapters. “To my surprise, I learned that it’s not difficult to, in colloquial terms, ‘BS’ your way through a Socratic seminar with only a quick skim through a SparkNotes summary,” she explained.

An anonymous sophomore (A) pointed out that most people aren’t proud of their actions—other priorities such as sleep simply take precedence over reading. “I often get three to four hours of sleep a day,” A said. “Sometimes, when I try to read on the train, I briefly close my eyes and end up sleeping through my entire commute. At some point in the year, I just gave up and began searching the summaries of that night’s chapter, so I [could] still share during class discussions.”

Another anonymous junior (B) summed up the dilemma: “It’s like, do I sleep for an extra hour or stay up trying to decode Shakespeare?”

Other students have been able to maintain their favorite pastimes and work around their busy schedules. “I think it’s important to constantly exercise that creative and imaginative side of [my] brain that sometimes gets pushed aside when I’m grinding through schoolwork,” senior Bernard Wang said. His favorite class is English, and though some books are less engaging than others, he always looks forward to the readings.

Junior Jonathan Xu takes reading a step further: “A goal of mine that I’ve been working toward is being able to read books in a foreign language,” he said. A few weeks ago, Xu made an attempt to read the Esperanto—a constructed international auxiliary language—version of “The Little Prince,” with one of his motivations being how educational it was. “It was full of extremely advanced words that were more complex than the English version [...] and has made me want to continue studying Esperanto,” Xu explained. Xu also wants to read “War and Peace,” which was originally written in Russian with French dialogue. He plans to learn French to read a version of the book that is translated to English but keeps the original French dialogue because he believes that translated novels often forgo key details.

As one reads, one calls upon one’s imagination to take a step back from reality and be transported to another world.

For sophomore Katherine Lake, this escape from reality captures the appeal of books. “In movies, everything is laid out for you, whereas in books, everything’s a lot [looser],” she said. “As a result, things like the plot and characters can be much more interpretive and personal.”

For Lake, reading is also an effective way to improve writing skills. “After [reading books for a while], you’re able to see what works and what doesn’t,” she added. “You might pick up phrases or different ways to use words that you can then use to improve your own essays.”

Yet in the age of social media and streaming platforms, reading seems to have lost its allure. “I feel like people underestimate the enjoyment that you can get from reading a book,” Lake reflected, contrasting it with the popular live-action films and shows that people often opt for instead. “I know it might seem more cumbersome, but it helps you be creative and open up your mind in a way that movies can't.”

B reflected on his recent lack of reading: “I really want to start reading more again. I can’t remember the last time I started a book for fun. It’s practically a lost language—obsolete—to me now, and that’s a bit disheartening,” B concluded. “I guess that’s one good thing about this quarantine, though. What better time than now to pick up reading again?”

Seconding B’s sentiment, Bernard Wang added, “Now that quarantine is here, the first thing I did was get started on my list of books I created for second term senior year.”