From the old blog. In which we blow against the wind.
The text for tonight’s sermon is drawn from a big stack of cheaply bound books, each decorated with a garish cover pattern — flowers and diamonds, green and gold, orange and pink — that bespeaks their Seventies origin.
Clearly they’re not Bibles.
Nay, if the Bible were in this stack of books, it would have been ruthlessly filleted to 150 pages, to be polished off in a week’s time by housewives in Akron and Wichita Falls during that interlude between the departure of the school bus and the heating up of the oven.
Yes, I’m writing about Reader’s Digest Condensed Books tonight.
When I was a boy, the bookshelves of my home held maybe a dozen of those collections.
We didn’t subscribe to Reader’s Digest, but both sets of grandparents did.
I’m guessing that my mom’s parents passed on the books to her, finding the fiction better-suited to her tastes than their own, even with all the racy stuff trimmed out.
Looking at the list on the Wiki page linked above, I now recognize that the family Condensed Books collection included selected volumes between 1971 and 1978.
As a pre-teen with little grasp of literature (not a bad target for this sort of exercise, actually), I remember reading some of these novels, sort of fumbling randomly among the collections for books I might like:
— “The Day of the Jackal” (Vol. 89, 1972) and “The Dogs of War” (Vol. 101, 1974), both by Frederick Forsyth.
I subsequently re-read both of these in their full versions, which alerted me to just how adept the Reader’s Digest editors were at removing the spice and snap from a good potboiler.
— “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (Vol. 94, 1973) by John Godey.
Soon to be two major motion pictures.
— “The Boy Who Invented The Bubble Gun” (Vol. 100, 1974), by Paul Gallico.
In which an alienated, remote rich kid jumps a Greyhound to D.C. to patent his titular invention and crosses paths with all sorts of characters.
This one had a typically Seventies soft-dark ending:
The kindly young veteran who takes the traveling youth under his wing ends up stealing his blueprints and trying to patent the bubble gun himself.
The book ends with the veteran sending the kid a letter, telling him that someone else beat both of them to the patent, and expressing his regrets.
— “Eric” (Vol. 102, 1975) by Doris Lund.
One of several successful books from the first half of the ’70s (this one nonfiction) about losing a loved one to leukemia.
My brother’s name is Eric, so I probably didn’t tarry long with this one.
It momentarily tripped me out this afternoon to realize that Eric Lund — the tousle-headed, athletic teenager of the title — would have turned 61 this year, and probably would be contemplating retirement as I type this.
— “The Hostage Heart” (Vol. 108, 1976) by Gerald Green. More potboiling — this one involving a bunch of terrorists who storm an operating room while an outrageously rich man is on the table having open-heart surgery.
Nowadays you can barely give these books away.
Many libraries specifically refuse to accept them in book drives.
They go unsold on eBay as often as not.
And they apparently don’t hold up that well, having been cheaply made back in the ’70s.
These were not luxury items, after all; they were cheap distillations of popular literature, quicker and dirtier than the paperback versions of the original books.
(Sort of the literary equivalent of those 99-cent albums of ’70s hits re-recorded by studio bands.)
One interesting page I found outlines 37 craft projects you can undertake using unwanted editions of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
An example: “Stack the books, drill a hole for a dowel through the center and use for table legs.”
Another blog post declares, “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books make great firewood.”
I have no idea whether my parents still have any of these books, or whether they managed to unload them while the giving was good.
But if I find them kicking around my folks’ house, I might just give some of them a read.
I know the arguments against condensed books:
They’re shaved down in ways unintended by the original author, and in ways that strip out important scenes for the sake of not offending.
And the real, full versions of most of these books can be found for free in your local library, or for 69 cents in paperback at your local used bookstore.
(For the record, I don’t have a good local library. And while I wouldn’t buy a Condensed Book instead of the full version, I might read a Condensed Book if it were already in the family collection.)
To get back to the first part of the argument:
The presumption that a finished book solely reflects its author’s desires, and that those desires are not to be tampered with, is not founded in truth.
Most creative professionals have to deal with somebody — a book editor, a record producer, an A&R man, a movie studio executive — who has the right to change their product and isn’t shy about exercising it.
The novels we read are not solely the work of the person whose name is on the cover.
With that in mind, the editing work of John Zinsser and his peers could be seen as just another layer of outside input.
A particularly bluenosed and paragraph-paring layer of input, yes; but defensible nonetheless.
Or think of Condensed Books as remixes — alternate versions that take out some of the hooks, but deliver on others, just like in the world of music.
Also, while some quality literature is scattered among these collections, there’s a lot of forgettable stuff, too.
Just how many of the nuances of “The Boy Who Invented The Bubble Gun” d’ya think got lost in the Reader’s Digest version?
(From what little I know of Paul Gallico, the editors might have done me a favor by trimming him down.)
Finally, the notion of bringing one book to the beach but polishing off five novels — or at least, enough of them to be able to talk about them — seems to me to be far from the guiltiest of pleasures.
As I said, I wouldn’t pay for a Condensed Book collection.
But if we go back to the ’70s housewife in Akron and look at the disposable trappings of her life — the TaterTots and Velveeta in her fridge; the Vega in her garage; the polyester in her closet — I’m not sure Condensed Books deserve entirely the same scorn as the other relics of that time.
Except maybe for those cover designs … there’s not much to be said for those.