Thug Notes: A New Look at the Classics, But Intended for Whom?

Thug Notes

THUG NOTES Audio CoverA Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature
By Sparky Sweets, PhD
Read by Greg Edwards
Category: Humor
Audiobook Download
Published by Random House Audio
Aug 18, 2015 | 379 Minutes | ISBN 9780147522023

Sparky Sweets, PhD, and Wisecrack proudly present this outrageously funny, ultra-sharp guide to literature based on the hit online series, Thug Notes. Inside, you’ll find hilarious plot breakdowns and masterful analyses of sixteen of literature’s most beloved classics, including: Things Fall Apart, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Pride and Prejudice, and more!

The series Thug Notes has been featured on BET, PBS, and NPR and has been used in hundreds of classrooms around the world. Whether you’re a student, teacher, or straight-up literary gangster like Dr. Sweets, Thug Notes has got you covered. You’ll certainly never look at literature the same way again.


My Take Oblong


I applaud anything that attempts to make literature relevant and works to engage anyone in reading. So I have watched a few episodes I’ve seen of this particular You Tube channel. Sometimes it is funny and once in a while I gained a little insight into a book I had read. So, naturally I wanted to listen to the book when it became available.  Until I looked closely at the book I actually thought there was a real Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. in the world providing a hip take on “Cliff Notes”  which, of course, I never used.

It is a challenge to make the classics relevant in today’s world when we’re bombarded by thousands of images, sounds and ideas each day.  The questions are whether THUG NOTES, as a phenomenon, meets the challenge and whether it is worth the money. I had to look at the phenomenon because the book would not exist without the You Tube channel.

I always think anything created by adults for the education of kids in a “cool” way may actually fall flat or seem corny to the intended audience.  I wasn’t sure so I asked three college students I know to check out one of “Sparky Sweets, Ph.D.’s” You Tube programs which are just slightly different than the books.

The first woman, a first year college student said

I’ve watched those in my high school classes sometimes at the end of a unit. It was usually more just as a joke than to actually help us review. They are always fun to watch after you’ve read the book, but it doesn’t provide much of anything other than laughs.

Another woman, a sophomore from the United Kingdom had not heard of this before and after watching commented:

I agree that it seemed like an attempt to make literacy cool – and in my opinion it failed. I feel like it tried to gain a broader audience by going down the rap/urban route but in many ways I feel like it probably alienated many older viewers. I don’t feel like it’s relevant to me or other college age students.
However, I have heard that using urban culture/rap in schools for education has been proven to be useful in reaching some uninterested students at middle/high school age though. … Another thought I had was that rap/urban language etc. used wouldn’t be appropriate for younger viewers.

Another well-spoken woman in her sophomore year listened to the You Tube version of Dostoyevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMZOV, as well as that for P & P which analysis does not appear in the book. 

I can’t think of any reason why anyone would want to use THUG NOTES unless it is to try and get out of reading the book (since it isn’t an analysis that could actually pique the interest of someone who has read the book), and if you do something like ThugNotes you are going to entirely and completely miss the point  of the books!
On the other hand, I like the message that just cause you’re “cool”  or see your self a certain way doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy certain types of books. But I am not convinced that that message isn’t wholly mitigated by the fact that it isn’t a discussion of the books but a too-fast-to-follow dumbing down for people too brain dead to get elementary plot points, or more likely those who were assigned to read a book, not interested, and need to know something about it for class.

She also points out that the language used, “…is not a necessary way of staying relevant. No one needs to cater to the denominator where women are passive objects in our grammar,…”   This made me think again about the language in the book. One function of literature is to elevate the human mind and spirit; use of rude vernacular only succeeds in setting a poor example for youth that will hopefully end up in places where calling women “bitches” and “hos” is not tolerated. It perpetuates the objectification of women.  I don’t think most of the male characters are spoken of this way by “the Professor.”

The last student’s boyfriend, a sophomore at another school, said, “…he had  no idea what was going on, but that if it was trying to be a Cliffnotes-like tool that it was completely un-compelling, but that if it is meant to be funny for people already familiar with the book that it may fill that niche.”

I would say it is only an attempt at humorous interpretation, but an interview from PBS’ Tavis Smiley  Greg Edwards, aka Sparky Sweets, Ph.D. says the program is aimed at engaging younger people through humor and relevance in familiar language.

This phenomenon is purportedly aimed at making literature more accessible to youth, but It does not succeed in doing for literature what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert did for politics.   And unlike CLUELESS or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, which each humorously reinterpreted a classic without analysis of the text, this provides a spoken “book report,” with a synopsis, list and descriptions of characters and some discussion of themes and symbols.

As an audio book it is best in small doses.  I listened to most of it straight through and the template for breaking down the gist of each book makes it repetitive, and once the ear is acclimated to the urban/rap sound, it becomes dry. 

I think it is intended for people in their thirties or beyond who feel the need to try to recapture some of the cool of their youth, and, perhaps who used to use Cliffnotes or Sparknotes.  I got a few insights into the books they examined, but the book’s interpretation and description is only slightly different than that on the You Tube channel.  I think you would get the same value from watching Thug Notes on You Tube and only at the cost of your time.

I couldn’t help thinking that this would be funnier on SNL, preferably an early cast.


Links Blue Horizontal


On You Tube: