"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 August 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Summary Judgment


[it's me again. i've been quiet for awhile since brian does the daily most often]

If you're one of the Americans

fortunate enough not to be in a

freshman lit class, a book

group, or an interview for

janitorial work at Amazon.com,

you've probably not recently

discovered yourself frantically

skimming a volume of Cliffs

Notes in the hopes of credibly

impersonating a high-school

graduate. And if you have picked

up one of the Little Yellow

Books lately, it's unlikely that

you noticed a subtle but

significant change to guides'

classic boilerplate preface.


Years ago, the inside cover of

each Notes had a Surgeon

General-inspired all-caps

injunction aimed at the amateur

idler, bearing the signature of

esteemed founder and

cryptoslacker Cliff Hillegass

himself: "These 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



If it feels like an old man just

informed you that pissing in his

garden might stunt the growth of

his rhododendrons - threatening

you with a flaming faceful of

Eco-Oil for good measure -

you're not alone. Like the

scaretext that once featured

prominently on tubes of Testor's

glue, such language tends to be

reflexively understood by

habitual snivelers as both a

dare and a pretty good idea. In

Cliff's case, his words

virtually guaranteed that a

generation of American students

would get their only learning

about the canon of Western

literature from a small

publisher in Lincoln, Nebraska.

But now, in these user-friendly

times, the warning only reads

"Opinions expressed in the Notes

aren't rigid dogma meant to

discourage your intellectual

exploration.... A thorough

appreciation of literature

allows no short cuts."


[the urge to blather on has been silenced]

Whether Cliff died, adjusted

upwards to his optimal Prozac

point, or reread his notes for

Death of a Salesman is an open

question (and would require

genuine, tiresome research to

settle, besides.) But the

attitude one feels now is, "Tell

you what, you pretend to read

the book and I'll pretend to

enjoy your five bucks." And why

should he worry? His tract

classics midwifed those

now-ubiquitous shortcuts to

life, the universe, and

everything: the For Dummies and

Complete Idiot's guides, Slate's In Today's Papers,

and Wishbone reruns.


Now, the Ballantine Publishing

Group has moved to the next

level of the microwaved

knowledge industry with its

Library of Contemporary Thought,

a monthly series of 100-page

softcovers penned by a dream

team culled from that subsection

of America's most famous smart

people still willing to pen

20,000 words for US$100K. With

refreshing immodesty, Ballantine

describes their talent list as

"America's most original

voices" and the subject matter as

"today's most provocative

issues" and claims that these

booklets are "certain to

generate controversy, media

coverage, and strong public



We consumers are honored, of

course, that our needs made the

top three, but controversy for

controversy's sake rarely

results in good writing. Take,

for instance, the

perpetually fired newspaper

editor Pete Hamill, whose

impenetrably titled News is a

Verb - an examination of the

current state of newspaper

journalism - has little to offer

the reader besides "when I was a

cub reporter" anecdotes and

vague populist rants that

newspaper owners should pay more

attention to women, immigrants,

and the needs of the community.

Nowadays, however, such insider

press-bashing has become

commonplace and a revolving cast

of Geraldos, Olbermanns, and

other feckless clods get paid to

admit daily how their craft has

become a race to the gutter.


[but, since i'm so busy and obsessed with my dumb hobbies,]

Seymour Hersh's contribution to

the Library, with the grave

title Against All Enemies: Gulf

War Syndrome: The War Between

America's Ailing Veterans and

Their Government, doesn't fare

much better. Hersh, who wrote

The Dark Side of Camelot - that

salutary exercise in JFK

necrophilia - obviously relishes

telling us that national heroes

Colin Powell and Norman

Schwartzkopf retired their way

out of any obligation to help

sick veterans once the victory

parade was over. Ballantine may

get the media notice it said it

wants - though Salon's interview

with Hersh quickly turned into

obsessive musings on

you-know-who - but it's nothing

that a casual X-Files watcher

wouldn't have assumed when the

first reports of ill soldiers



And so on, through Vincent

Bugliosi's onanistically

self-inflating treatment of

Jones v. Clinton, Carl Hiaasen's

truly radical claim that Disney

is taking over American culture,

Edward Schlossberg's

thumb-sucking exegesis on the

need to prepare for the coming

age of interactivity, and John

Feinstein's laughably petty

rebuke of Tiger Woods' greedy,

greedy ways. Tell you what,

Ballantine - we'll pretend we're

shocked and titillated, and you

pretend to put our $8.95 to

good use (five cents more than

the cost of a set of Cliffs and

Monarch notes and only slightly

less than a set of Cliffs Old

and New Testament Notes, but

without the accelerated

spirituality value.)


[i'll return to boring you with this crap, only on mondays]

Giving the matter two seconds

thought, it's clear to us that

the need being met here is in

the burgeoning mass market for

instant opinions. Those of us

who suck Starbucks for bus

change never know when we'll be

required to voice a thought on

some newsworthy issue. Imagine

you're at the book group, and

the discussion turns to Bill

Clinton's cigar fetish. In that

deathly still moment before the

host(ess) can change the subject

to Sam Donaldson's combover, you

- having just finished Hamill's

book - can declare, "Those

publishers who seek inspiration,

or license, from the supermarket

tabloids and try to publish less

grungy versions of the tabloids'

agendas are fools." It's not

that you won't sound like a

stooge - you will - but you'll

have succeeded in convincing

your fellow students to avoid

what's bound to be a very

not-fun conversation, at least

not as long as you and the

host(ess) are clucking about.

Either way, everybody learns a

little something. Would old

Cliff Hillegass - who saw his

life's work as the pursuit to

"heighten perception, empathy,

and awareness of the human

condition" - not glow with pride

at such a scene?


Ballantine would probably claim

the Ho-Ho Defense - their

product is only part of a

balanced media diet. But the

truth is that anyone who was

going to have toast, jam,

pancakes, a grapefruit, and a

tall glass of orange juice

anyway probably doesn't have

sugar-coated sugar loaves in the

pantry. But as talk show hosts

say when their guests try to

make a point involving more than

two sentences, "Blah, blah,

blah." If Ballantine can make

money from the Library of

Contemporary Thought, they're

likely to move into 900-number

info lines and drive-through

windows for the

opinion-challenged. Or society

will become like the bar in the

old story where the jokes are so

old that everyone knows them by

number. That way, we can just

whip out a "3" or "49" when

asked for our views on

affirmative action or

partial-birth abortion, like our

all-pro opinionators do already.

With that in mind, perhaps

Contemporary Thought is one case

of truth in advertising.

courtesy of R. Satyricon