Review Your Notes: To Make Sense of Challenging Books, Grown-Ups Use Study Guides the Way They Were Intended. (Group Dynamics).(Bibliography)

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CLIFFSNOTES--THEY'RE NOT JUST FOR LAZY COLLEGE KIDS ANYMORE. The publishers of the venerable yellow-covered study aids have always insisted they're not to be read in lieu of classic works but, rather, alongside the real books, to help students understand themes and meanings. Truth is, about as many college students use CliffsNotes that way as read Playboy for the articles, but it's different among adults. Especially for book group members, such companion analyses--notably those from SparkNotes, a newer CliffsNotes-like series that covers current books amid its list of classics, and those available online, like ClassicNotes--are gaining popularity for helping to deconstruct and explain denser works.

"We were reading Mrs. Dalloway, which we knew was a classic, but it was a tough book," says Beth Kramer, a member of two groups in northern New Jersey. "So I went on the Internet and found ClassicNotes, and I went section by section, with the book and the analysis." Many of the members of her group, Kramer says, used some similar resource for the Virginia Woolf book--one group member even brought the CliffsNotes to the meeting and read from it during discussion.

"There's a sizable bunch of people using them for book clubs, and for just pleasure reading," says Justin Kestler, editorial director of SparkNotes, which is owned by Barnes & Noble. SparkNotes has published summaries on classics ranging from The Aeneid to Wuthering Heights, but they pointedly also cover recent books like Angela's Ashes, The Joy Luck Club and Snow Falling on Cedars.

On its Web site, sparknotes.com, there are many more current titles--and they're all available for free. The typical SparkNotes volume includes a summary of the book, a note on the context in which the book was written, a guide to the characters and a chapter-by-chapter analysis and discussion of the book. ClassicNotes, at classicnote.com, which Kramer prefers, covers much the same information and also includes a brief biography of the author. The classic CliffsNotes, which are similarly structured, are also available on the Web, at cliffsnotes.com, but for a fee.

Elyse Barack, who works with many book groups at The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, in Winnetka, Illinois, also sees group members using study aids to help with the reading. "They don't use them as a replacement," she says. "They use them as an enhancement."

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