SparkNotes was founded by a couple Harvard students in 1998, under the name The Spark, and initially functioned as a date website. After observing that the overwhelming majority of users were high school and college kids, the team wracked their brains for other products they could provide to crank up hits. They wrote and presented five study guides on their website and received a flood of requests for more. SparkNotes is now owned by Barnes and Noble, has over 7 million registered users, and the guides are available free online, in PDF, and in print.
The literature guides provide themes, motifs, character analysis, analysis of major quotes and scenes, and many other tools that enable students to tackle difficult texts. For some students it offers an enriching interaction with literature and helps many seek out meaning in subtle or difficult texts. SparkNotes also provides chapter-by-chapter synopses of thousands of novels and access to reviews and essays, offering students the ability to write passable essays without picking up a novel.
No Fear Shakespeare is one of the most successful links on the site, and provides Shakespeare translated into modern prose, so students can write essays or rant away in a classroom about a play they have never even read. Essays are available on the message board that students could easily print out and hand in. Many teachers hate SparkNotes and it is considered cheating to reference it in a lot schools across the country.
Though, type in any novel onto the message board search and you will find detailed conversations between students from across the globe. There are specific references to pages and scenes, ideas are thrown around, and essay theses are born every minute. SparkNotes has a growing reading base and gives kids an opportunity to talk about literature with peers and people who are muddling through difficult stuff just like them. SparkNotes can be accessed through text messaging so kids without internet can ask questions about literature, philosophy, or history, and receive information within minutes (though I’m not sure how many kids without internet have cell phones).
As far as the downfall of the book is concerned, I would say that SparkNotes has hurt print a lot as more and more kids realize they can scrape by without picking up a book. But it helps kids chat – ah, what a crazy, bittersweet thing it is. They are all loaded, though, so I’m not sure if it matters to them.