The Impetus Behind CliffsNotes

If you’re like me, you avoid CliffsNotes with a passion and go out of your way to remember pedantic book details that the slackers salivating over those by-chapter summaries in those hideous yellow pamphlets will never possibly account for. (For example, I still remember almost two decades after I read Animal Farm that Napoleon was a Berkshire boar.) If you’re also like me, you’re probably curious about who this Cliff character was, the man who opened Pandora’s box back in the day.

Fortunately, Ask Yahoo! has some of the details. It seems that the Cliff in question is one Cliff Hillegass. Mr. Hillegass, who died a few years ago at the age of 83, was a disciple of the “self-starter” school of thought. That’s all fine and dandy, until one considers that being a “self-starter” extends into the unfortunate realm of Dale Carnegie.

But no matter. Hillegass, it seems, was a grad student in geology and physics working as a college representative for Long’s College Bookstore. Cliff cultivated contacts, like many a successful businessman. But here’s the interesting thing: the CliffNotes summary idea was actually pilfered from Canadians!

In the golden days before 1958, when one could walk into an American bookstore without being tempted and when one was forced to discern meaning on text alone, it was a man named Jack Cole (not to be confused with the creator of Plastic Man) who had offered Cole’s Notes for Canadian consumption. And it was Cole who planted the seed during a fateful conversation with Cliff that provided the yellow-backed lifeblood, the idea that was unapologetically cribbed, for many an intellectual deviant during the next fifty years.

Hillegass tried to sell the Nebraska Book Company on the idea. They passed. So Cliff borrowed $4,000 from the bank and began unleashing the beasties from his basement in Lincoln. He started with 16 Shakespearian titles, made a bit of money, and the rest is history. Eventually, in 1998, Hillegass sold his enterprise to IDG for more than $14 million.

To be fair to the original Cliff, he did repeatedly point out that his notes “are not a substitute for the text itself…and students who attempt to use them in this way are denying themselves the very education that they are presumably giving their most vital years to achieve.” Cliff did genuinely love literature, gave $250,000 to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for an English chair and was really into rare lamps and sculpture gardens. But despite Cliff’s quirkiness and generosity, his statement is a bit like telling a pyromaniac with a lighter that he should probably use the disposable Bic in a judicious manner.

Of Jack Cole’s fate, I can find no trace. But I plan to find out what happened to the Cliff before the Cliff. For if he is the true originator and Cliff the mere opportunitist, then we now have another equitable reason to blame Canada.