Flannery O’Connor didn’t have much patience with people who wanted to summarize fiction, including hers. If someone could “tell what it was about,” she thought, what was the point of writing it in the first place? To one audience she offered, as a parody summary of her story “Good Country People,” that it was “about a lady Ph. D. who has her wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman whom she is trying to seduce.” The point was taken in laughter. To another audience she said that if the wooden leg was going to end up symbolizing anything, the symbolism would have to grow on readers as a part of their encounter with the story and not because someone had told them in a class. She knew that, her comments notwithstanding, stories usually do have subjects and themes and sometimes also symbols, but she knew that an encounter with a good story is radically different from, and better than, an encounter with a list of “elements.” She was arguing for a kind of reading that places the work first and comes to it the way a traveler comes to an unknown country.
O’Connor died in 1964, the year I first saw Cliff’s Notes (first written in 1958 in Nebraska and nowhelpfullycalled CliffsNotes) at the local book store. I remember thinking it peculiar to buy one book whose purpose was to “tell me about” another book. In the years since, I have looked at a few of those “study guides,” but never finished one. Sometimes a summary can be good and funny. Take for example Desmond Skirrow’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn Summarized”: Gods chase/ Round vase./ What say?/ What play?/ Don’t know./ Nice though. That standard is rarely met.
It is sad to think that summaries and notes, already sweeping whole works aside, will become even more deeply entrenched in education, but that is likely to be one result of a movement gaining some currency to reduce homework loads in school. Under the formula commonly propounded, it should be limited to ten minutes per night per grade. This would mean that, for example, 8th-graders would have eighty minutes of homework a night and 12th graders two hours. In addition, no homework is to be assigned on weekends or over holidays.
In an anthology I have used with 10th-graders appears “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” a short story by O’Connor. Like Wallace Stevens’s unseen nightgowns, this story is strange and wonderful, though dark as O’Connor’s work usually is. It ends with Julian, the protagonist, running and crying “Help!” for his stricken mother against darkness that “seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
Let us imagine a tenth-grader at home facing this story. She is taking five academic subjects and is at a school with the ten-minute-per-grade homework policy. That means that, roughly speaking, she is “allowed” about twenty minutes at English homework per night. The story has about 6500 words. Assuming she can read 250 words per minute—and that exceeds the speed at which quite a few tenth-graders can actually read—it would take about twenty-six minutes of steady reading merely to get through the story, already well into two nights of homework. Having interrupted her reading directly before the crisis of the story, she backtracks and does a bit of rereading, actually taking the full two nights’ allotment to read the story.
To read it once, not twice. To read it without taking notes. To read it without ruminating on that last sentence: how can the darkness sweep Julian back to his mother? How can it postpone his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow? To read it without being able to use the reading to support her own answers to any of the five questions that appear in the anthology at the story’s end. If we want to allow our tenth-grader two hours to read and reflect on O’Connor’s story, we must allow six school nights for the completion of the assignment. Since homework is not to be assigned on a weekend, it would take her more than a week of often-interrupted work allotments to study the story. What is more, we have not even spoken about other work that might take place concurrently, such as writing or grammar. Let us therefore recklessly imagine as an alternative that she exceeds her time limit because she is fascinated by the story and, as a result, succeeds in working out for herself the relationship in the story of darkness, guilt, and sorrow.
Let us also imagine her elder brother, a twelfth grader allowed a generous twenty-four minutes per subject. He has been assigned to report on the arrest of Samuel Pepys (pronounced peeps) in 1679 for participating in the “Popish Plot” to unleash terror in England, including the assassination of the King. How many days or weeks would it take him to come up with the needed factual detail and a synthesizing assessment? Let us imagine him working overtime to do so because he too has become interested in the subject instead of his clock.
He discovers that there was no “Popish Plot.” He discovers that Pepys was not even Catholic. He discovers that in the court trying the case Pepys was not allowed to confront the lying witnesses against him or to impeach their testimony. He discovers that Pepys could be held indefinitely without charges and was in fact held without charges for weeks. He discovers that if convicted of the charges finally brought against him—without due process of law—Pepys would be hanged, drawn, and quartered. He discovers what that punishment was. He ends up giving a report not just on Pepys but also on background to the U. S. Constitution’s protection of habeas corpus and due process of law.
Much of the good that our two students get out of their extra work would be lost if, constrained by unreasonable time limits, they had to resort to “study guides” in order to get “the basics” of the O’Connor story or “a lesson” in civics. These guides are not the same thing as what they purport to “study.” They do the students’ thinking for them, and they deprive them of the chance for a bracing encounter with salutary complexity. They are like food that has been chewed by someone else, given to students with the instruction not to take the time to chew it themselves.