What Are SparkNotes for, Anyway?

A Socratic dialogue.
May 29, 2019

It’s May, and the world is finally awake. The campus of EDUCRAT STATE hums like a hive. Outside the dormitory, the day is all daffodils and spring zephyrs, but inside 303 WEST HALL a storm-cloud of academic fear brews. Dreading an impending final in literature, sophomore Joe Schmo peruses a SparkNotes article on Herman Melville’s classic whaling adventure. Travelling through time to rescue Joe from this perilous, ethical fog, Socrates materializes on the couch—quite unexpectedly.

SOCRATES: Hey, Joe. What are you up to?

JOE SCHMO: Uh…hi. Just reading the SparkNotes for Moby Dick. Wait, who are you? Why are you wearing a toga? And why do you smell so bad?

SOCRATES: (1) I am Socrates. (2) It’s a chiton. And (3) I love wisdom more than hygiene; everybody knows that about me.

JOE: My apologies. I thought you were on the hall for a fraternity party.

SOCRATES: I get that a lot. So…“SparkNotes,” eh? What’s with all of the funny articles in the sidebar?

JOE: I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to them.

SOCRATES: That link says “Top Ten Heart-Throbs from Shakespeare.” And here are four different Harry Potter-related personality quizzes. What is this site for, anyway?

JOE: It’s for studying. SparkNotes provides summaries of classic works of literature.

SOCRATES: Ah, so you are reading this for pleasure?

JOE: No, actually. I have a final next week.

SOCRATES: Hm. I’m not sure that the authors of “#YOLOTHELLO” are going to have particularly juicy things to say about Moby Dick. So you’re using this as a supplement, then? You read Melville’s novel, and now you are clarifying some of the—how do you put it?—minutiae?

JOE: No…I…uh…I haven’t read the book.

SOCRATES: Ah! I see.

Joe is now annoyed and furrows his brow.

JOE: Hey, what’s with all the questions?

SOCRATES: Oh, Joe. That’s kind of my thing—I’m sorry! Tell me if I understand this correctly: You are not reading this article for pleasure?

JOE: Correct.

SOCRATES: But neither are you reading it to deepen your enjoyment of Moby Dick, since as you admitted a moment ago, you have yet to read Moby Dick.

JOE: Bingo.

SOCRATES: Then what are you reading it for?

JOE: To do well in the class, of course. And they say you were the smartest person in history?

SOCRATES: Tell me: what does it mean “to do well”? Give me a frank answer.

JOE: To get a good grade.

SOCRATES: And how does one get a good grade?

JOE: Doing well on the test.

SOCRATES: And what do these “tests” test?

JOE: How well we know the books.

SOCRATES: Presumably, how well you have read the books, no? I mean, isn’t it fair to conclude that, since reading is assigned, reading is what is assessed? Surely these professors don’t care about how well you know someone else’s reading of Moby Dick, but how well you know your own. Right?

JOE: Well…yes.

SOCRATES: I see. So when you say that you want “to do well,” you mean “well” not on the professor’s terms, but on your own. Let’s see: I don’t want to wax too Socratically ironic, but don’t we have a name for that?

Joe grimaces and pauses, but just for a moment.

JOE: I guess I underestimated you.

SOCRATES: I will take that as a compliment. But let me get back to another question that I asked you earlier, a point that I want you to clarify: we established that you are currently taking zero pleasure in Moby Dick, correct?

JOE: Correct.

SOCRATES: Does that bother you at all?

JOE: No. School isn’t about “pleasure.”

SOCRATES: Says who?

JOE: Says my parents who keep reminding me not to have too much fun at college. I need to get a 3.0 GPA this semester or I lose my scholarship.

SOCRATES: That is an important reality, my good man. There is no denying it. But would you agree with me that there is at least some pleasure to be found in knowing the truth?

JOE: I don’t see where you are going with this.

SOCRATES: Just run with me here. Would you or wouldn’t you agree that there is some pleasure to be found in knowing the truth? I am not just talking about lofty things like classic literature. I mean anything—say, knowing how to apply the quadratic formula, knowing how to grow your own tomatoes, even knowing Red Sox statistics?

JOE: Uh, sure.

SOCRATES: Would you agree that there is truth to be found in some of the classic texts of literature, the really important ones like Paradise Lost, Hamlet, or The Brothers Karamazov?

JOE: That’s what they say.

SOCRATES: Then there must be some pleasure to be found in reading the classics first-hand, right?

JOE: I guess I have to admit that there must be.

SOCRATES: But here you are with SparkNotes, taking the option of no-pleasure. That’s a little strange.

A long silence passes. Out the window, they can hear swallows chirping in the courtyard, and a pungent, soilish smell of new beginnings (more pungent than Socrates himself!) pervades the undisturbed air of the room. Joe sits there, staring intently at the screen of his laptop, as if some missive of moral conviction were now legible behind the white arrow of his cursor. Slowly, Socrates gets up to go. As he passes Joe’s bookshelf, he stops—pulls Moby Dick off the shelf, inspects the bright orange “RENT” sticker on the cover, and peels it off irreverently.

SOCRATES: [coughing a little] Uh, Joe…

He tosses the paperback onto the snack-scattered sofa.

…You have one week.

Socrates beams a bright smile at his pupil and leaves the room. As he closes the door, he thinks he spies a smile returned.

The End.

Josh Mayo

Josh Mayo

Josh Mayo is an Assistant Professor of English and Writing at Grove City College. He writes at joshamayo.com.

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