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Published: Tuesday, 6/10/2008

Even before information age, many found real books too slow a slog

A couple of weeks ago I called half a dozen business people to get some comment on books for The Blade's Sunday book-page feature called "What They're Reading."

One business owner said, "I work 85 hours a week. I don't have time to read." A retired executive who is active on a number of boards said he couldn't remember the name of the last book he read. The executive director of an organization said she reads only newspapers and magazines these days.

And I have to confess I have pretty much given up novels and now read only what's required to keep up with trends - and that automatically means nonfiction.

CliffsNotes, which put the high points of literary classics in booklet form, have remained popular since their introduction in 1958. CliffsNotes, which put the high points of literary classics in booklet form, have remained popular since their introduction in 1958.
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Although there are still some voracious readers, a lot of business people don't have - or don't take - the time to read books, said Daryl Yourist, an owner of Leo's Book Shop, a third-generation firm that's been a fixture in downtown Toledo for more than 40 years.

In fact, his firm in recent years has downsized its book selection in favor of a wider range of magazines, maps, and niche publications. "Everything is vying for your time, [including] the Internet and electronic media. People want their information short, sweet, and quick," said Mr. Yourist.

Patrick Borden, manager of the Borders Books store at Westfield Franklin Park mall, said he has a "gut feeling" that traditional books have lost some ground to e-books and other online offerings.

None of this surprises me. Even my generation, which perhaps could be called the last of the "reading generations" - folks who learned to read before televisions were in every household - had its own shortcuts.

Is there a scholar among us who never, ever read the CliffsNotes version of a 600-page book to get an assignment done on time?

Of course, college professors and high school teachers sneered at those yellow-and-black striped booklets that first appeared in 1958. Naturally, the slimmed-down version omits all the difficult material.

And, for that matter, who could honestly say they never read any of the Classics Illustrated comic books that introduced many youngsters (such as myself) to great literature? For just 15 cents (25 cents later) a young reader could plunge into such works as Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, Gulliver's Travels, Jane Eyre, and The Prisoner of Zenda.

At the end of many of the volumes was good advice: "Now that you have read the Classics Illustrated edition, don't miss the added enjoyment of reading the original, obtainable at your school or public library." Naturally, many of us did exactly that.

After all these years, CliffsNotes appears to be alive and well. Mr. Borden at Borders said, "They're still popular." Among the dozens of titles are The Iliad, Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Catcher in the Rye. A similar collection is called Shakespeare Made Easy.

Barnes & Noble Booksellers has its own version of literature study guides, SparkNotes, a nine-year-old service begun by four Harvard students.

The harshest critics of study guides say they encourage students to cheat. But other academics don't mind so much, as long as students gain some insight into the classics.

As for me, I borrowed several dozen of Mr. Yourist's personal collection of Classics Illustrated so that I can do some "heavy reading" in coming days. Now, if only they could make income taxes, securities regulations, and Federal Reserve minutes this easy to understand.



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