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Source, 30% down the page: 'In Defense Of 'Difficult' Books', by Claire Fallon, 2014 Apr 17

Even if writers persist in creating convoluted pieces, as many still do, the push to skim and speed-read threatens to nullify their efforts. Some texts can be read and mostly comprehended at 1,000 words per minute, but Middlemarch and Infinite Jest probably can't -- at least by most of us mere mortals. The ability to basically register what each word in Middlemarch means is not the same as the ability to understand the book. Complex works should offer us more and more meaning the more time we spend with them, whether we're rereading or simply slowing down to spend more time contemplating each passage. Rushing through a great book strips the reader of any value other than the right to say we've read the work in question. It's Cliff's Notes without Cliff's Notes.

1. I know what are Cliff's Notes, but what does this sentence mean? 2. Is this a turn of phrase?

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The construction "it is X without X" means "it is essentially the same as X without actually being X".

In this case, reading the work too quickly gives you the same experience as if you had read the Cliff's Notes for that work, even though you didn't actually read the Cliff's Notes. As J.R. pointed out in the comments, this could also be a bit of wordplay with the possessive. The name of the study guides has evolved to be CliffsNotes, so many have lost the idea that they were originally "notes written by Cliff (Hillegass)".

I overheard something in our work café that I'll paraphrase to make it work as an example of this sort of structure:

"I don't understand the point of veggie burgers. Why not just have a sandwich that tastes like vegetables instead of making something that's a hamburger without the hamburger?"

We refer to both the ground beef as hamburger and the sandwich that has a cooked ground beef patty in it as a hamburger, so I think it works.

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  • "It's like an izod shirt without the alligator" – maybe something like that? – J.R. Jan 15 '15 at 23:05
  • @J.R. I was hoping to think of a more exact parallel "It's like an Izod without the Izod." All of the examples I can think of are "It's like X without the Y." which makes me think that there is something special about the example in the question that I'm missing. – ColleenV Jan 16 '15 at 2:44
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    I think the example might be a pun, because we don't usually think of "Cliff" as a person when we say "Cliff's Notes." It sounds like something Groucho might say. – J.R. Jan 16 '15 at 9:28
  • @J.R. I think you're right. The lack of "the" in front of "Cliff's Notes" is a pretty big clue. I don't think it would work without the possessive. – ColleenV Jan 16 '15 at 23:41
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This is an special case of "This is <X> without <Y>."
In particular, it is an example of "this is <X> without <the good feature(s) of X>."

Cliff's Notes and SparkNotes Guides are summaries of famous works. They typically provide plot summaries, character summaries, and discuss the themes of each work. They also provide prompting questions, to encourage the student to think about the characters and themes. These prompting questions are good practice (or ideas) for writing term papers or answering exam questions about the work. Many students read Cliff's Notes or a SparkNotes Guide instead of reading the work, and hope that their teachers don't notice. This often works, because the thematic discussions in Cliff's Notes and SparkNotes Guides are quite good.

To me, the sentence

It's Cliff's Notes without Cliff's Notes.

means:

[Rushing through a great book] gives the impression that we have read the book; we might even remember the overall plot and the names of some of the characters and places (like Cliff's Notes lets us do); but it does not give us the real benefit of reading Cliff's Notes -- the thematic discussions and thought-provoking questions.

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