Monday, April 18, 2016

Birthday: '"That it should come to this!' (Act I, Scene II) What does it mean? Just after speaking to his mother Gertrude and uncle (and step-father) King Claudius, Hamlet has his first of five soliloquies. When Hamlet exclaims, '[t]hat it should come to this,' he'd just finished describing how the world has gone to fodder. Then Hamlet goes on to say how he cannot believe his mother would marry his father's brother (i.e., Hamlet's uncle). This quote shows Hamlet's fury and shock at his mother's remarriage.'

Clifton Keith Hillegass (1918-2001)

His Life At A Glance

Early Days

He was the classic midwestern farm boy, full of can-do and go-get ‘em and seeing the main chance. After all, he was born in Rising City, Nebraska. His dad was a mail carrier. His mother raised gladioli. He wanted to be a scientist, and got a degree in physics, then entered grad school at the University of Nebraska.

But this is a midwestern, mid-century, American story, so Cliff Hillegass had to be detoured by Unexpected Personal Matters and Cataclysmic World Events. He fell in love, got married in 1939, and dropped out of school to become a store clerk for the Nebraska Textbook company at $12 a week.

His Cataclysmic World Event was one Hillegass shared with many others in the world of his time. It was called World War II. He joined the Army Air Corps as a weatherman, and when the War ended, he returned to Lincoln and his job at the Nebraska Textbook Company

Cliff’s World

The company could hardly put Captain Hillegass back behind the counter, so they put him on the road, building a market for sales of used textbooks. He traveled across the United States and Canada for over a decade, and got to know booksellers everywhere.

Over dinner in Toronto, a bookseller called Jack Cole offered Cliff US distribution rights to sixteen pamphlets he’d developed and sold in his two stores. They were short summaries of Shakespeare’s plays, and Cole called them Cole’s Notes.

Cliff shook on the deal, and went home to Lincoln. He started thinking: after people brushed up their Shakespeare, they might want to do the same with other books. And students- well, you'll never urn out of those, will you?

So Cliff Hillegass started his own series. He designed the cover himself, and hired graduate students from the university to write the texts. He never wrote a one of his 220 titles. He used graduate students because they were cheaper, and after he found PhDs tended to get bogged down in details. Cliff wanted his guides to help students get the most from what they read.

He borrowed $4000 from the bank and got a 120-day line of credit from a Lincoln printer, who produced 33,000 copies of the Cole’s Notes titles. Hillegass was worried sick about going broke, which in the midwest, in 1958, was about as bad as things could be, but figured if the project failed he could pay back his debts by 1960.

Major Themes

Cliff’s Notes- he renamed them for himself- did well, and by the end of the first year he sold 58,000 copies through the network of bookstore owners he developed in his years on the road. In every copy he included a slip with a message over his signature: “A thorough appreciation of literature knows no shortcuts.” Cliff Hillegass respected the classics and didn’t want to give the impression his guides were a substitute for reading the originals.

Cliff’s own reading tastes ran to science fiction and murder mysteries. He and his wife ran the new business out of their basement.

The business continued to grow, and Cliff added more titles. Forbes Magazine called it “the ideal publishing business” in 1989. Its costs were low- each copy cost pennies to produce and he didn’t pay royalties to his writers- and the booklets returned a steady 6%, year in and year out. Eventually he bought out the Cole titles that got the ball rolling.

Critical Views

Cliff Hillegass kept his eye on the market all the time. He foresaw an collapse of interest in Orwell coming; after its overblown anniversary year, he dropped the Cliff’s Notes guide to “1984” in 1985.

His Los Angeles Times obituary said,

He knew his market and played to it, changing titles as literature teachers' emphasis shifted. Seventy percent of buyers have been high school students too rushed, bored or lazy to read the whole of, say, "The Scarlet Letter," "Macbeth" or "Huckleberry Finn," all top sellers. Among other lucrative Cliffs Notes have been shorthand versions of "Julius Caesar," "Hamlet," "The Great Gatsby," "Lord of the Flies," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Romeo and Juliet." 

By advertising regularly in such youth magazines as Seventeen and Scholastic and college newspapers, Hillegass over the years trounced upstart competitors, controlling 80% of the literary study guide market. Not that he didn't have a few missteps--like Cliffs Cassettes, an attempt to put the guides into students' Walkmans. He marketed audio guides to "Othello," "Canterbury Tales" and "The Odyssey," but withdrew them as poor sellers after only six months.

Teachers, from high school up, didn’t think so much of Cliff’s Notes. The New York Times called them “the literary study guides that have saved millions of procrastinating students from academic ruin.” From time to time schools banned them from campus bookstores as a crutch that encouraged learning less than the value of the shortcut to a B. Cliff’s marketing didn’t reinforce a vision of his guides as serious, either:

''Juliet, Baby, it's easier with Cliff's Notes,'' read one slogan in the late 60's, before the company's name lost its apostrophe. Another appealed to those who felt ''Shafted by Shaw? Mangled by Melville?"...A Cliffs Note on ''Alice in Wonderland'' provides, under the header Themes, concise discussions of ''Abandonment/Loneliness,'' ''Nature and Nurture,'' and Alice's role as ''The Child-Swain.'' Dickens's ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'' is paraphrased as ''Life in England and France seems paradoxically the best and the worst that it can be.''

A Contented Man; A Lasting Legacy

The criticisms stung Cliff Hillegass, his daughter said. But he stuck with his work, insisting that ten percent of company profits go to Nebraska charities. In 1983 he retired as company president but continued work as its chairman. In 1991 he was a guest on the Tonight Show, hosted by his fellow Nebraskan, Johnny Carson. He sold the company to a bigger company, IDG, for $14 million in 1998.

“An avuncular, Buddah-like figure who wore bolo ties and liked to sit in the press box at the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers' home games,” one writer called him. The Hillegass Sculpture Garden at a museum in Kearney includes one of him.

By the time Clifton Hillegass died of a stroke in 2001, his company had sold over fifty million books. IDG was bought up by John Wiley & Sons that year and was renamed Hungry Minds. In 2011, Cliffs Notes announced a joint venture with AOL and reality TV show producer Mark Burnett to introduce a series of 60-second video study guide surveys of literary works. Cliffs Notes was acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012, and—according to the site's "About" page—"the brand lives on today as part of the global learning company, and its mission of changing lives by fostering passionate, curious learners."

While each successive owner has retained Cliff Hillegass’ distinctive cover design, his caution about shortcuts to learning was dropped a long time ago. It now promises “The Fastest Way to Learn” at all levels. According to the company website, these are the current trending titles in the Cliffs Notes family:

High School

1 Unbroken
2 Hamlet
3 Into the Wild
4 The Great Gatsby
5 To Kill a Mockingbird


1 Anatomy & Physiology
2 Biology
3 Differential Equations
4 Accounting
5 Sociology

Grad School

4 GRE Exam Format


2 Praxis
5 Teacher Resources

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