To read or not to read: Evaluating online book summaries


Christian Connor/Staff Artist

James Zaidman and Malachai Abbott

* All interviewees requested anonymity because they feared potential academic repercussions. 

“I have definitely visited SparkNotes more than the Student Life page,” Apple* (11), said. From essays to homework assignments, students at the school hold varying opinions regarding the ethics of summary websites like SparkNotes, Shmoop, and LitCharts. 

Summary websites offer a variety of resources that appeal to students, ranging from chapter summaries to pre-written analyses of literary devices such as motifs, themes, and foreshadowing. Students can then use this information when writing essays, catching up on reading, or anything in between. 

However, many English teachers strongly dislike these tools, English teacher Sarah McIntyre said. “If I could magically eliminate [book summary websites] from the world, I would.” These websites create a classroom where students are less productive, less engaged, and less willing to express their own ideas.

Despite many teachers’ disapproval of summary websites, a large portion of students 

continue to use these platforms. According to an anonymous Record poll with 103 responses, 54% of students reported using summary websites some of the time and 36% of students reported using them more than half of the time.

Some students, such as Calista* (11), go a step further and use these websites to help complete their analytical papers.

Despite the school’s notoriously difficult workload, students should not use book summary platforms in lieu of assigned reading, English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin said. A critical part of an English education is the process of gaining an understanding of the text from class discussions. A SparkNotes-style summary can get in the way of that process, he said. “The idea of ‘do I know the plot or not?’ or ‘do I know the character or not?’ is less the point in that scenario than really trying to think through and understand what the characters are doing.”

Casdin also feels that reading complex literature improves students’ analytical abilities long-term. “Simply, the neural connections that are formed by trying to make sense of, absorb, and imagine [the reading] changes who you are and how you think,” he said. “If you short-circuit that by thinking of the work as [being] for a grade, you’re missing the whole understanding of education.”

Reading the text — even when it is difficult or time consuming — enhances Louise Kim’s (12) experience in English class, they said. “I enjoy parsing through the language and tracking where the characters are, and what they’re feeling.”

Book summary websites can box students into a surface-level or incorrect interpretation of the text, English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said. Even though these platforms can provide quick summaries in a pinch, continually using them is a waste of time, he said. If students continue relying on such platforms, they will not glean a deep understanding of the text that is fundamental when writing essays, he said. 

Instead of skimming summary websites, McIntyre encourages students to collaborate with their peers on reading assignments, she said. “Let the work be shared, don’t absorb somebody else’s work.”

Although the school’s Family Handbook does not officially define summary websites as “cheating,” relying on these websites’ ideas during classroom discussions or in written assignments should be considered a breach of the school’s policies, Wilson said. “The Honor Code frowns on the use of something like SparkNotes … when it comes to writing essays and taking [ideas from a website],” he said. “That’s plagiarizing.”

Even though Kim finds book summary websites unproductive, she does not judge students who do choose to use them. “For other students who may find understanding the plot more confusing or take a longer time to read, then it’s more understandable why they would double check with those kinds of websites,” they said. 

When a student does not have sufficient time to complete their reading, summary platforms can be an easy solution, Murvin* (10), said. “I’m a slow reader, and sometimes when I have lots of work in other classes I just can’t read the [homework assignment] the night before.” 

June* (9) uses SparkNotes text summaries mostly to supplement her Shakespeare readings.  “I don’t feel as bad about using it for something like Shakespeare where it’s hard to understand what’s actually being said.” 

In contrast, Kim strongly disagrees with the idea of using SparkNotes to better comprehend Shakespeare as students will lose the unique experience of reading Shakespeare, they said. “Part of why we read Shakespeare and do that reading homework is to challenge ourselves and realize what we find confusing and then clarify it in class or as we write our essays.”

Casdin agrees that students should not read text summaries of Shakespeare, he said. Struggling through difficult texts can give students a deeper understanding of the world, he said. “The reading of English literature is something that connects to all aspects of your life — it is not a discipline that is simply about the written word.” 

If book summary websites did not exist, the number of students who would complete their assigned readings would possibly increase, June said. Nevertheless, students are busy, and summaries are a good option, she said. “It’s better to at least read a summary so you understand some of what’s going on,” June said. “Then, maybe you can catch up in class and participate or add your own thoughts.” 

While SparkNotes can be a helpful tool, it should not be a student’s first instinct, since reading direct texts is better for comprehension, June said. “[SparkNotes] can definitely help cement your understanding of the passage,” she said. “[Nonetheless], it’s best to use it if you have already read it and you’re confused about a certain thing, rather than just using it as a replacement for your actual reading.”