I always thought they were a good idea–in theory. I never needed them, but I figured that if I did, they’d get me out of a jam.
Then I picked up the Cliff’s Notes on T.S. Eliot.
My. God. They stank. I was about 17, and had read just about all of Eliot’s work, and all I could think is, “Wow, the author must have spent five whole minutes thinking about the interpretation before giving up and returning to his “Dick and Jane” collection.”
I have no doubt that the summaries are accurate enough to pass a fairly general quiz. However, if you’re going to do any sort of real interpretation–rather than just copying EVERYTHING that the author of the notes says, which can get you caught by any number of experienced teachers who don’t take kindly to those who steal others’ ideas–you need to read the text. You can’t necessarily get nuances from a summary. I mean, it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s bloody likely.
On the rare occasion that I use notes, the only ones I’ll trust are Spark Notes. And only then if the teacher’s being a jerk (20 full-length works in less than a month, and nothing the rest of the semester…I have time for THAT with my five other classes and my job that I need in order to pay for things like gas). Those are fairly accurate, but you still shouldn’t depend on them for interpretation.
I believe in either reading the book, or faking reading the book–not relying upon someone else’s work. Don’t get me wrong, I can BS with the best of 'em, but BSing what you haven’t read on your own through your own creativity is an art form. Using Cliff’s Notes to steal an interpretation is like using a crayon and tracing paper to copy a work done by a seven year-old. And we’re all better than that.