My husband calls them "cheat notes". I prefer to think of "cliff notes" and their French counterpart, "profil du Bac", as study aids. I don't use them to cheat. I have nothing left to cheat for. I am just perpetuating my eternal student status by continuing to study the novels I read.
Do you remember the list of 100 Best Books of the Twentieth Century that came out in 2000? I was pregnant with my first and had just completed my PhD dissertation. I was patiently waiting for my advisors edits of my thesis and had time on my hands.
I quizzed every member of my family as to how many of those 100 books they'd read. It was a way to assess how cultured we were. My grandmother was the clear winner, but she had also had some 50 years of reading time ahead of us. Still, she'd only covered about 40 of the works on the list. The rest of us averaged between 10 to 30 books. Even if we'd read another by the same author, or if we'd seen the movie, were not enough to grant us a point in our personal "cultural index".
So I took the American list and a list from Le Monde, and I put my mind to the task of improving my cultural index. I was getting a Ph.D after all and a mere 30% just wasn't enough.
So I bought "A Brave NewWorld" , "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Grapes of Wrath", along with their corresponding cliff notes. I wanted to study them, the way I would have if I had attended an American High School or taken an American Literature class in college (which I regrettably didn't). I bought a dozen more titles in English. I did the same for my French list completing it with Gide, De Beauvoir, Yourcenar, Camus, Celine and Sartre. These were authors I had studied in high school, but hadn't read every single book. They are the types of authors one finds difficult to read for fun.
Today, eleven years since those abandoned and never completed reading lists, I still buy cliff notes or the Profil de Bac to study a novel. I have just picked up l'Amant by Marguerite Duras, postponing my Dostoyevski reading in French. My husband saw me and said: "you don't need cheat notes! You've earned a Ph.D."
I told him I didn't use them for Franzen. I was too busy devouring his novels....There are some novels that only required free time to get through them. Others require cliff notes.