Monday, November 10, 2014

Sparknotes and Plain Style

Sparknotes is a product of the advanced technology that we all use every day. Computers and the internet have been beneficial for students of the past couple of decades in that they allow for easy access to a wide variety of information, books, texts, etc. Sparknotes is one such website that students rely on for summaries and analyses of common and popular literary works. It is a quick and easy tool for understanding texts, often instead of reading the text itself. I’m not going to deny that I have used Sparknotes on different occasions and depending on the text I was reading. One text that I really enjoyed in high school was Lord of the Flies. The plot, symbols, and themes really grabbed my attention and I found the story to be very exciting. However, unlike other stories I read in high school, I didn’t use Sparknotes for this one. I was actually surprised to find that it was on the website, since I believe that William Golding uses plain style within the book already. Stories that already have elements of the plain style in them don’t necessarily need to be on websites like Sparknotes because while there may be some more complex phrases, chapters or excerpts, there is enough active voice, less jargon, and quick sentence openings to make stories like Lord of the Flies accessible to both younger and older audiences. Has plain style just become a “shortcut” for students and readers to use in order to have a better understanding of language as a whole? Sparknotes and other websites could be taking out the beauty if language itself by simplifying it to basic terms and sentences. It is because of this that I think Sparknotes isn’t always as useful and relevant as some students come to think. If the story and its summary on the website have a similar reading ease, average grade level, and use of plain style, it would be more beneficial to just actually read the book.
            While this book tells a fascinating story about school boys becoming stranded on an island in a dystopian society filled with nuclear warfare, and how these boys slowly begin to lose their humanity and morality, I enjoyed the book even more because it was easy to understand, but not boring or dull. With Sparknotes, they do give good descriptions of the plot and summaries of each chapter, but they do it in a way that makes the story seem much more boring than it actually is. I would argue that whoever wrote the summaries on Sparknotes didn’t have enough jargon. For example, the first summary of the first chapter opens with:
“A fair-haired boy lowers himself down some rocks toward a lagoon on a beach. At the lagoon, he encounters another boy, who is chubby, intellectual, and wears thick glasses. The fair-haired boy introduces himself as Ralph and the chubby one introduces himself as Piggy. Through their conversation, we learn that in the midst of a war, a transport plane carrying a group of English boys was shot down over the ocean. It crashed in thick jungle on a deserted island. Scattered by the wreck, the surviving boys lost each other and cannot find the pilot.”
There aren’t any words or phrases here that the common student wouldn’t understand, and that’s why this summary as well as most of the other received an average grade level of 7 or 8. This excerpt gives a straightforward, cut-and-dry overview of what the characters are doing and seeing. While I could see where some students who have more trouble understanding and digging into literary texts might find this useful, but doesn’t this take away from the creativity and the visualization of the story? The opening of the book itself received almost the exact same average grade level as the Sparknotes summary, but Golding puts life into the words and uses some jargon as a way to paint a better picture of what is actually happening.
            As previously mentioned, there are a few differences between Lord of the Flies and its Sparknotes companion that would make students and other readers gravitate toward the website summary. For example, there are some instances where the author uses slightly more descriptive and complex imagery for the sake of painting a vivid image of the events that are unfolding, but also to emphasize the beauty of the language. One excerpt describes this scene:
“There was a sudden bright explosion and corkscrew trail across the sky; then darkness again and stars. There was a speck above the island, a figure dropping swiftly beneath a parachute, a figure that hung with dangling limbs. The changing winds of various altitudes took the figure where they would. Then, three miles up, the wind steadied and bore it in a descending curve round the sky and swept it in a great slant across the reef and the lagoon toward the mountain.”
Here there is more jargon and other official style tools rather than the plain style that one would see on Sparknotes. It is in instances like these where younger readers would be more inclined to view a summary to understand the picture that Golding is trying to paint. This could arguably help students and readers have an even better understanding of the language. If they are able to first understand what is taking place in the story, then they can move past that part and look at the complexities of the original language.
            Another aspect seen in both the actual work and Sparknotes’s interpretation of the story is that there are quick sentence openings that make it easier for readers to follow along and not get lost in a sentence before the actual meaning of the sentence becomes clear. For example, in the chapter 4 summary, someone wrote:
“The littluns, who spend most of their days eating fruit and playing with one another, are particularly troubled by visions and bad dreams. They continue to talk about the “beastie” and fear that a monster hunts in the darkness. The large amount of fruit that they eat causes them to suffer from diarrhea and stomach ailments. Although the littluns’ lives are largely separate from those of the older boys, there are a few instances when the older boys torment the littluns. One vicious boy named Roger joins another boy, Maurice, in cruelly stomping on a sand castle the littluns have built. Roger even throws stones at one of the boys, although he does remain careful enough to avoid actually hitting the boy with his stones.”
By this point of the story, most people would know who most of the characters are and the terms they are using to describe their surroundings. Despite this, Sparknotes doesn’t use lengthy openings and descriptions to get the point across. The reader can clearly picture what the school boys are going through in this scene. What’s interesting is that Golding uses this technique in the actual book as well. While some of the vocabulary may be slightly more advanced, the sentences aren’t lengthy, and they get to the point right away so the readers can avoid any confusion. For this example I can understand how the Sparknotes might be more useful. Golding, in this chapter and a throughout others, starts to use phrases and terms that were more popular in the 1950s when the book was written, and this can clog up sentences and force readers to look through that to get to the simple structure of the sentence. Yet I would again argue that this makes the story much more exciting and engaging than reading the simple sentences in an online summary.
            Thirdly, both the summary and the story make good use of active voice. Without it, the story and its characters would become jumbled and very confusing to readers; especially readers who are at an average middle school level. In the last chapter, the plot begins to reach its climax, and the readers know what is happening because it is clearly stated who is doing what action. In the opening someone writes:
“Ralph hides in the jungle and thinks miserably about the chaos that has overrun the island. He thinks about the deaths of Simon and Piggy and realizes that all vestiges of civilization have been stripped from the island. He stumbles across the sow’s head, the Lord of the Flies, now merely a gleaming white skull—as white as the conch shell, he notes. Angry and disgusted, Ralph knocks the skull to the ground and takes the stake it was impaled on to use as a weapon against Jack.”
Readers and students can clearly tell that Ralph is hiding or that he’s thinking about the other school boys on the island with him. The events of the book aren’t obscured by passive voice and lengthy descriptions. Again this is still similar to how Golding writes Lord of the Flies. From this same part you can clearly tell the actions of Ralph even through a more literary lens, and again the average grade level and readability are close in number.
            While I focused on just this one story, there are plenty of others as well as poems and short stories, that have a greater justification of being summarized on a website like Sparknotes. This could potentially be entirely situational. I think that a story like this, where the author already uses a lot of plain style, doesn’t need to be summarized in an even simpler way. It takes away from actually learning about the book, the story behind it, even its historical significance. However I do feel that some younger audiences could really benefit from Sparknotes or other summarization sites. This is also situational. Students younger than middle school age would most likely not be reading a book with darker themes in it like this one. So if most excerpts were at or just slightly above a middle school level, then why not be challenged a little and read the story. It allows students to come up with their own questions and interpretations of texts, and makes for a much more fascinating read.

-Carly Radiske

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