Recent postings on the Forum have warned college teachers
against making it easy for their students to read plot
summaries of Mark Twain's works. For this reason, it has
been suggested that a book such as _Mark Twain A to Z_
(which is loaded to the gills with the offensive beasts)
should be kept at arm's length from students.
As the author of _MTAZ_, I won't pretend I'm indifferent to
the prospect of losing potential sales. However, the
question of whether it is necessarily a bad thing for
students to read plot summaries did truly trouble me while I
was writing _MTAZ_. I've never much liked plot summaries
myself, but I eventually concluded that _MTAZ_ should have
them--especially since J. R. LeMaster's and James Wilson's
excellent _Mark Twain Encyclopedia_ didn't have them.
Indeed, the plot summaries ultimately proved to be the
roadmaps that pulled _MTAZ_'s literary material together.
I also knew, of course, that anyone determined to read plot
summaries instead of Mark Twain's own writings could easily
find them in the widely available Cliff's and Monarch Notes.
Since the synopses in those editions seemed to be uniformly
unreliable, I felt I had a responsibility to offer something
better. I figured that if I couldn't help addicts stop
shooting up, I could at least provide them with cleaner
What all this comes down to is this: Does reading plot
summaries discourage students from reading actual literary
works? And if so, why? Perhaps a few anecdotes will help
answer this question.
Many years ago a college buddy told me how he had aced a
high school English test on _Romeo and Juliet_, even though
his only preparation had been an hour with a Classics
Illustrated comic version of Shakespeare's play the morning
of his exam. From that depressing story one might conclude
that students armed with good plot summaries (and those in
the old Classic Illustrateds were often terrific) needn't
bother reading real books.
On the other hand, isn't it more likely that my friend's
high school teacher simply didn't write much of an
examination? After all, other high school teachers have
certainly done better. Shelley Fisher Fishkin proved that.
In _Lighting Out for the Territory_, she recalls her
introduction to _Huckleberry Finn_ in high school: Her
eleventh grade teacher shocked the freckles off her with
this assignment: "Write a paper on how Mark Twain used irony
to attack racism in _Huckleberry Finn_." Ouch! Try getting
an A on an assignment like that without reading the real
book. Having a good synopsis of _Huckleberry Finn_ at hand
might have helped Shelley and her classmates write fuller
and more coherent essays, but how far could they have gone
if they didn't also read Mark Twain's own words carefully?
Now, let me ask those of you who teach college courses on
Mark Twain a question: What kinds of assignments do you give
your students that would let them gain an unfair advantage
if they were to read something like _MTAZ_? If test
questions or essay assignments are so unchallenging that
students can pass without reading Mark Twain's own words,
then why should they read the real books? So far as plot
summaries go, those in _MTAZ_ are pretty good; however,
they're only the palest of pale substitutes for the real
Isn't it just possible that if, in addition to reading Mark
Twain's books, students were to use reference materials like
_MTAZ_ and _The Mark Twain Encyclopedia_, their teachers
could challenge them more deeply? Having reliable plot
summaries to refer to should, after all, make it easier for
them to master story lines and details, leaving them freer
to focus on more important matters, such as Mark Twain's
language, writing techniques, characterizations, and ideas.
Well, I'm not a college teacher, so I can't offer empirical
evidence in this debate. But, please: If _MTAZ_ really poses
a threat to college students, I'd like to know why.
On a more personal note, I'd also like to hear from anyone
who cares to comment on _MTAZ_'s plot summaries themselves.
I found them surprisingly difficult to write and wish to
know if readers find they serve a worthwhile purpose.