On his site Thug Notes.com, Dr. Sparky Sweets reports weekly on the literary classics. While weekly book reviews and discussions are likely held at your local library as well, Dr. Sweets is likely your librarian’s worst nightmare. Played by comedian Greg Edwards, Dr. Sweets is videotaped sitting in front of floor to ceiling book shelves as he boils the classics down into “original gangster” terms. He describes the famous compassion in Bronte’s Jane Eyre as “Jane’s forgiveness don’t quit”. In another video he reduces 500 pages of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, into “Ishmael going off about whaling”, but powerfully concludes that, “that whale is the swimmin’ symbol of the raw truth”.
The site covers a range of literature from Shakespeare and Dostoyevski, to Beowolf and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. His video reports are usually less than 5 minutes and include both summary and analysis, which is actually quite insightful and accurate. It comes in sometimes vulgar, and always colloquial terms, but the research behind Dr. Sweets’ work is thorough and the comparisons, perceptive. The application of street language and contemporary issues to high culture literature where informal genres aren’t commonly found also adds a different scope to the analysis which makes the material more accessible.
A New York Times article by Neil Genzlinger also recently reviewed Dr. Sweets’ Thug Notes, and pointed out that this phenomenon of replacing educational information with street culture is something teachers have been attempting for years to up their cool factor. A google search of “civil war” or “integer” with the word “rap” behind it will show how prevalent this form is. But you don’t have to be creative or concerned with accuracy and details to attempt this, and not everyone is as good as Dr. Sweets. Genzlinger expresses concern with Thug Notes-style learning becoming a fad that will spread into other aspects of education and lower its quality. He concludes that, “We have to put a stop to inappropriate hip-hop appropriation before we get the Fox News “Rap the Headlines Hour” or “Gangsta 60 Minutes.”
What I love about Dr. Sweets’ videos is the respect he shows toward classical literature. Despite his sometimes vulgar language and humourous “original gangster” tone, the central point of the video is unambiguously about the literature.
As someone who is currently studying — and enjoying– English literature, I think Thug Notes is great. With Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for example, I felt the Thug Notes version oversimplified the famous, and painfully slow courtship of Jane and Mr. Rochester by simmering it down to, “they start chillin on the reg,” but overall the video captured the main issues and themes of the novel. It also provided a few central symbols, which is all one might expect from a brief summary. No English literature student would expect to write an analysis based on a short SparkNotes summary, and people need to go into Thug Notes with the same mentality. It provides entertainment and some accurate information, but is by no means comprehensive. I agree somewhat with Genzlinger’s fear that this structure will replace actual forms of education, but as long as you remember that the video is not a replacement of the novel, it can be both an entertaining and informative addition to it.