The Cliffs Notes paradox | Seth’s Blog


For a decade, Cliffs Notes were the bestselling section of the bookstore. They were a simple way for any high school student to get insight, examples and answers about the books they were assigned and read (or didn’t read).

When Cliffs published a list of their thirty bestselling titles, I saw an opportunity and created a book that was the cliffs notes of the Cliffs Notes. Quicklit didn’t sell very well, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Used as intended, Cliffs Notes and Quicklit were a gold mine of insight. They opened the door for real understanding, and often got to the heart of the literature better than an overworked high school teacher might be able to.

The paradox? More availability of notes didn’t lead to more learning.

It’s not clear to me that widespread availability of these summaries and guides actually led to much in the way of understanding.

And so here comes ChatGPT and its cousins. Here’s ChatPDF, a miracle that instantly reads a PDF, summarizes it and gives us the chance to ask it questions. The results I’ve seen are extraordinary. Here’s a session about a 48-page summary of my new book.

Except…

It doesn’t work until we choose to understand.

Part of the magic of an actual book is that the reader ends up understanding. It seeps in, the aha’s are found, not highlighted.

TLDR is internet-speak for “Too long, didn’t read.” It’s one of the consequences of too much to choose from, combined with a lazy quest for convenience. It’s a checklist mindset. And all we get after we finish a checklist is a bunch of checked boxes, not real understanding.

If you were on a long train ride with the smartest person in the world, what would you ask her? And how long before you went back to scrolling on your phone?

It doesn’t matter how much we summarize, at some point, effort is required. More summaries won’t automatically lead to more understanding.





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