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Summary Judgment

A Game of Thrones (cover)Fans of fantasy and science fiction are, by and large, accustomed to reading works that are published in multivolume series. Be it The Chronicles of Narnia, Herbert’s Dune or more recent works such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the multivolume epic is the norm rather than the exception. In the Internet Age, fans of these works have taken to the Web in droves and one of the outgrowths of their digital fandom has been the advent of the “Chapter Summary” repository.

In days long past (read: the 1980’s and 1990’s), re-reading your favorite series prior to publication of the next volume was commonplace. In fact, for many readers, it was the norm when publication of a new volume was imminent. Unless you were taking notes yourself, there generally was not any other way to “catch up” on a series other than to read the whole thing. Sure, you could skim, skip and scan. But you were still picking up each volume and thumbing your way through.

Now, though, fantasy and sci-fi readers have options. Whether it is a user-curated Wiki, a comprehensive dedicated website, a message board thread or an ongoing “re-read” blog, readers can learn all about a series without having to actually read the series. But is this a good thing? Reading is one of the last havens from the ever-increasing sensory assault that is daily life in the 21st Century. Reading even the smallest of books is an investment of time—time spent with just you and the page (be it digital or tangible). You can’t tweet and read, text and read, play an MMO and read, answer work emails and read, etc. etc. When you’re reading, you’re reading. So is the proliferation of Chapter Summary sites (essentially, digital Cliff’s Notes largely minus the analysis) just another outgrowth of the “more, faster” mentality that has taken hold in the nascent new millennium?

I suppose it depends on the reader.

The Eye of the World (cover)My personal experience with chapter summary sites has been a positive one, only because I use them as a supplement and not a primary source of information. I only read chapter summary sites for series that I’ve already read, and I don’t use them in lieu of re-reads. I use them in conjunction with my reading. We all miss things in books, whether it is our first or tenth time through. Chapter summary sites are an excellent reference tool, and re-read blogs such as Leigh Butler’s Wheel of Time on Tor.com (http://www.tor.com/features/series/wot-reread) can force a reader to rethink familiar material. But as a method of first exposure? I think it is a slippery slope.

What about reading chapter summaries in lieu of re-reading a series? Here, I’ve heard diverging opinions. I have a friend that cannot stand re-reading ASoIaF. Yet he will gladly spend hours poring over the chapter summaries available on various sites, and doing so seems to legitimately heighten both his enthusiasm for the series as well as his anticipation for the next book. I have another friend that has never read the Harry Potter books (but has seen the movies) and likes picking through chapter summaries to pick out major differences. I don’t necessarily think their use of chapter summary sites is detrimental to their experience, but I simply can’t function in the same space. Without the flow of the narrative, something of the magic of a book is lost. A Memory of Light (cover)Would it be quicker to read chapter summaries instead of re-reading all of the Wheel of Time prior to reading A Memory of Light? Sure. But I’m making my way through the entire series before reading the last volume because this is the last time some of the story will be new to me. And I want to experience the words and the feel of the books. Not just the plot.

I do not pass judgment on chapter summary sites (although maybe I should write an article on the legal ramifications of such sites one day…). Like a hammer, the sites are tools that exist. They can be used to build or used to demolish, depending upon the wielder. Every reader is different, and all of us have very definite ideas on how we’d like to spend our (diminishing) free time. My fear, though, is that more and more people will simply skip actually reading a work and instead opt for the 21st Century Cliff’s Notes version. In the long run, that is detrimental to everyone involved. Reading, as they say in the US, fundamental. And to me, reading a summary is not on par with reading a primary work.

Title image by any-s-kill.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar quillet says:

    Great article! Chapter summary sites may give readers a plot, but they cannot give anyone the experience of reading a book. When we read, we aren’t just passively absorbing the author’s words. We always bring a bit of ourselves to the experience, using our imaginations to see and/or feel the story, and employing our opinions/beliefs to help us parse it. Reading is a dialogue between reader and author, and that means every book is just a little different to everyone who reads it.

    “Take the book, my friend, and read your eyes out, you will never find there what I find.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  2. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I tend to agree with you. Reading a book is a very visceral, almost intimate experience. Reading chapter summaries is something I do when I’m bored at work. It is the difference between art and information.

  3. Avatar phil says:

    What are some popular chapter summary sites?

  4. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    TowerOfTheHand.Com is a summary site for ASoIaF. The Wheel of Time has several, including library.tarvalon.net and thonky.com/WOT. HPCompanion.com has some really cool semi-illustrated summaries as well as analysis. The Tor website (tor.com) has some great re-read blogs that are, for all intents and purposes, chapter summaries plus some very high level discussion. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of wikis and info dums that have chapter summaries as well. Just google it and you’ll be amazed. Cliff’s Notes has to be out of business by now!

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