Wednesday, December 17, 2014

So I Don't Understand This Book...(An Online Guide to Help You With Those Literature Assignments)

Whoa was that a long title! I feel a little bit like Fall Out Boy circa From Under The Cork Tree. Anyway, for a long time now readers I've considered writing a blog post about all the helpful websites I would recommend if you are having a bit of trouble understanding a book from an English course or just a particularly challenging piece of literature that you decided to take on during your free time. While the internet can sometimes be the bane of academic assignments because it helps with procrastination, there are some really great resources to help you get through a book intelligently. Since most of my experiences revolve around literature, as an English Literature major, here are a list of resources I've come across and used during my studies. While some of these resources may help with other school subjects, I'm only discussing their capacities from a literary standpoint.

I feel like I must obviously preface this by saying that none of these websites should be substituted for actually reading the book or poem. Rather they should be used to help you better understand the more abstract or analytical parts of the work. The summaries provided can also help you track the plot progression of the book to make sure you haven't overlooked something important while reading. This list is in no particular order, but some resources, as I will point out, are better than others,

This website is an old standby and you'd have to be living under a rock to not have heard about Sparknotes. The site was founded in 1999, so it has built up quite a database over the years. Chances are if you need help with a book, they have a study guide for it. The site provides the usual summary and analysis, while also tackling prominent themes, key quotations, and character analysis. The information is very reliable and usually comprehensive. As you can expect the more comprehensive guides are usually provided for popular books studied in high school. Sadly, once your studies move beyond the predictable literary canon books, the guides do tend to be a bit sparse particularly in the themes and analysis sections. For example, I found the guide on Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence to be sorely lacking. Additionally, unless the poem you're studying is very popular, chances are you won't find an entry on Sparknotes. For those reading away from your computer, Sparknotes does have an awesome free app available that I currently have on my phone. Fair warning though, stay as far away from the Sparklife section of the site as you can while working on an assignment because that has the power to suck hours away from your day.

Cliffnotes was actually one of the first student literary guides and was primarily a print guide. Now it has a site similar to the layout that Sparknotes has. Again the best guides are usually for books studied frequently in high school and the rest usually lack in either summary or analysis. One awesome feature that CliffNotes has that Sparknotes doesn't is they often have a section of critical essays that discuss an important theme or motif in the novel.

Gradesaver, like the two previous resources provides great literary study guides that tackle summary, analysis, character breakdowns, a discussion of the prevalent themes, and usually has a section devoted to the author's background. In my own studies, Gradesaver is usually the site I turn to when Sparknotes lets me down, which is getting more frequent as of late. While they too have guides devoted to popular texts, they also cover plenty that aren't usually taught in high school and have some great articles devoted to the great poets as well. I know they were super helpful when I was trying to pick a great Yeats poem to write a 5 page paper on. I was even surprised to find they had a fully fleshed out guide on Chretien de Troyes' "Knight of the Cart" story, which was an immense help when I was writing my 10 page paper for my independent study on the tradition of Arthurian Romance. I finished all of Chretien's Arthurian Romance stories at the beginning of November and by the time the middle of December came around, it was difficult to remember where each incident took place. Gradesaver's summary was broken up into line sections, which made it easy for me to pin point the line numbers for the incidents I wanted to incorporate into my paper.

I personally had no idea LitCharts existed until Spring of last year and it's a new literature online resource created by the original editors of Sparknotes. As it a quite a new site, their library of guides is a little bit smaller than the others, but they are growing everyday. You can even take to social media and request a study guide of a book that they don't have yet, which is awesome. I know that in the near future this site might be my go to online resource because their guides are very comprehensive. They provide the usual summary, analysis, themes, and author background. The real difference (and the most important in my opinion) is the layout. Rather than just give you a list of the themes present in the novel, LitCharts has this immensely useful colored box system. In the chart, they assign certain important themes a particular colored box. Then when you go to read the in-depth summaries of each chapter, they indicate with that colored box whether or not the theme is present in that particular chapter. As a result, you can track the progression of the themes and motifs in each section. LitCharts also has an app, so you can view their charts anywhere.

Shmoop is also another underutilized source for literary guides and lately I've been using a bit more than Sparknotes. Their guides go above and beyond the usual summary, analysis, and themes. When discussing themes in the novel, they provide helpful lists of quotes from the book that demonstrate that particular theme. They even have what they call a "timeline" for each character, which tracks their presence in the story. Additionally, they have a database, which includes more than just the expected books. The one problem that I have with this site though is the writing style of the guides. I think in an effort to make the guides more approachable, the quality of the language is dumbed down, which is a shame. It almost reads like a literary guide written by your weird uncle, who tries to be cool and hip with the times, but fails miserably. For those moving beyond the typical literary guides, the site even has an incredibly useful breakdown of the various types of literary criticism.

Another underutilized source of academic help on the internet is surprisingly YouTube. While going on YouTube usually derails productivity, visiting these channels may actually help you with your literary assignments.

This YouTube series, which tackles a number of school subjects, was started by Hank and John Green who are known primarily as the Vlogbrothers on YouTube (nerdfighters, anyone?). The literature series, hosted by John Green, tackles the summary, analysis of prevalent themes, and the influence of the author's biography in each video that they do. In approximately one or two 10 minute videos, viewers are exposed to a wealth of information about a book in a way that is incredibly entertaining and in no way tedious. Since a lot of work and animation goes into the production of these videos, their selection is very limited. If you are currently in high school and studying the usual books, Crash Course will be an immense help to you.

I discovered this YouTube channel purely by accident and ever since then I've been urging everyone to go take a look at it. The premise of the channel is that Sparky Sweets, Ph.D provides a succinct summary and analysis of a book as a hilarious gangster character using all the stereotypical gangster language you can think of. All of the gimmicks aside, the channel provides some highly useful and intelligent comments related to the books they cover. My only criticism is that the summaries provided do tend to be a bit sparse compared to the other literary guides out there. Another plus side to this YouTube channel is unlike Crash Course, they have a rather expansive library of videos that address more than just the usual books. You can even request books in the comments and more than likely the creators will consider doing a video on it. 

I hope this list will be of some help to you whether it's right now or after the holidays. Until next time, Best Wishes!