Study Guides: the Species

Just what exactly should a study guide be?

For decades of my life, study guides meant only one thing: a zebra-striped, yellow-and-black series of pamphlets called Cliffs Notes that were generally used for cheating. The Cliffs Notes version became a way of disparaging any condensation or expurgated version of a story, a kind of cheapening by shortening. Teachers hated them. Sleepy students smelling like last night’s party were the ones who bought them.

Cliffs Notes  Then when book clubs became sighted by the publishing industry as a potent new customer base, the study guide had a rebirth. Suddenly every new trade paperback was defaced with a little announcement that questions were waiting for you at the end of the novel. No longer did the hostess have to fuss over what to discuss; she could concentrate on the hors d’heurves and have her list of questions readymade. As a bookseller, I’m used to pooh-poohing the study guide craze.

But their usefulness is genuine. I’m a great user of notes – my own. I always take notes when reading a stimulating book. And I offer these notes – usually a chapter-by-chapter outline of the plot, with all the characters listed by their first appearance and identifying traits – called Nick’s Notes in my monthly email for University Book Store. I encourage my readers to just kick back and enjoy the story, and know that when they forget a character, they’ve got a handy reference sheet all set to go. When I launch the Gay Classics book club in six months, I’ll be creating study guides for each book. I’ll want them to be informative and useful. I’ve got to decide what they should include.

Just to push this discussion of study guides one step farther, two days ago I received an email from the marketing department of Grove/Atlantic. Because of my online review of their book, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, in Shelf-Awareness, my article about the author, Sasa Stanisic, here on Book Group Buzz, and my choosing the book as the July Nick’s Pick for University Book Store, I was asked to create the Grove/Atlantic study guide for the book.

Exactly the kind of study guide I’ve always pooh-poohed.

Soldier Gramophone  Time to re-think this, as I get ready to make one. What should a study guide really try to achieve? I’m thinking a study guide has three functions:

1. Memory refreshing. It includes a summary of the basic plot points and the names of the characters, to facilitate discussion.

2. Thought provoking. It includes provocative thought questions: why are there seven narrators? Why does the story start twice?

3. Background enrichment. When does the story take place in history? What factors of the Bosnian war affect the way the story unfolds? How is Sasa Stanisic’s personal history reflected in his novel?

Grove/Atlantic will be sending me some sample study guides, to show me what they’re looking for – and in the meantime, I’ll be considering different methods of organization, looking for the format that works best. I’m starting with the basic template that I use for Nick’s Notes. Rather than separating out the chapter plot summaries from the character names and the interesting quotations, I blend them all together in a chronological outline, so that each chapter summary is followed by the characters introduced there and the passages to remember. But we’ll see. There are many different methods of doing this, and I’m going to construct the most effective memory-stimulus package I can design.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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