Cliffs Notes are the invention of Clifton Hillegass. Hillegass, a book salesman from Nebraska, put out the first Cliffs Notes in 1958. The idea for Cliffs Notes came from Toronto, Canada, where another enterprising book seller, Jack Cole, was already producing small study guides which he called "Cole's Notes". The first series of booklets concentrated on Shakespeare's plays.

Cliffs Notes are currently put out by IDG Books (the company that also puts out the X for Dummies series), who bought Clifton Hillegass' company in 1998.

Currently, the best selling Cliffs Notes at amazon.com are:

  1. A Separate Peace, John Knowles.
  2. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger.
  3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley.
  4. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury.
  5. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.

Clifton Hillegass founded Cliffs Notes in 1958 with a $4,000 loan and wrote the study guides in the basement of his Lincoln, Nebraska home. While working for the Nebraska Book Company, he distributed his first study guide for Shakespeare's Hamlet to college book stores around the U.S. with a letter asking store managers to give it shelf space to see if it could sell. "Some said it wouldn't go anywhere, and some thought it was a good idea."1 Cliffs Notes immediately became a hit with students. In 1998, Hillegass sold Cliffs Notes to IDG Books Worldwide Inc. (now Hungry Minds) for over $14 million. He passed away May 5, 2001 at 83 of complications from a stroke he suffered a month earlier.

Cliffs Notes study guides analyze and explain characters and chapters of authors as well as the plot, theme, and symbols. The collection of over 300 study guides helps students from the junior high school to college level through literature classes. While it is recommended that Cliffs Notes be read along with the corresponding book or after the book as a review, some students use the booklets as last minute book substitutes or as guides for multi-reference research papers. Over 30 colleges have banned Cliffs Notes from their bookstores in 1998, spurred by recognized acts of student plagiarism.2 Most professors know and can tell when a Cliffs Notes item is plagiarized, which may be because they own copies themselves.

1Hillegass's wife, Cliffs Notes founder dies at age 83, The Associated Press, http://www.cnn.com/2001/SHOWBIZ/books/05/05/obit.hillegass/index.html, Copyright 2000, AP.
2John Christian Hoyle, Cliffs Notes: An Aid, Not a Replacement for Moby Dick, "Learning, News, & Trends: The Notebook", http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/1998/05/05/p52s3.htm, May 5, 1998.

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