Reader’s Digest Condensed Books: A Love/Hate Story

Look familiar? These books are probably available, for free or very cheaply, at almost any neighborhood thrift store. Image from booksbythefoot.com.

Look familiar? These books are probably available, for free or very cheaply, at almost any neighborhood thrift store. Image from booksbythefoot.com.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a painfully short attention span — for everything except reading. From the moment I learned how to read, I was a reading-with-a-flashlight-under-the-covers kind of kid. I devoured a lot of library books, and my parents were surprisingly generous when I brought home the Scholastic Book Club order forms, so you’d think I would have gotten my fill of the written word.

You’d be wrong. I wasn’t particularly social (not one of my gifts), so I spent hours upon hours with my nose in a book. I had to read every day, and I was always looking for my next title. That hunt led me through and beyond the two pressboard bookcases in the living room — which contained a children’s literature anthology, a number of Erma Bombeck volumes and Bill Cosby’s “Fatherhood” — and down to the basement, which housed our massive collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.

Once I grasped the basic concept — pop lit tidily edited into 100 to 150 pages and bound into a single volume with three or so other titles — I was intrigued. My first official foray into a RDCB was “Unholy Matrimony,” by John Dillman, which I referred to in a blog entry several months ago. I was 9 years old. The topic of uxoricide isn’t exactly kid-friendly, but I was lucky enough to be left alone whenever I had a book in my hands.

With more than 30 years’ worth of RDCBs at my disposal, I found myself in a whole new world. No longer was I limited to my beloved Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin and Paul Zindel (though I loved, and still love, their work). I had graduated to adult literature with a bang, digging into several works whose impact still resonates today:

  • “The Stepford Wives,” by Ira Levin. I knew nothing about feminism or cultural hegemony. (Still 9 years old, folks.) To me, it was simply a good, creepy horror story.
  • Jenny’s Mountain,” by Elaine Long.
  • “One Child,” by Torey Hayden. I’ve read the majority of Hayden’s books, which are mostly about her experiences as a therapist and special ed teacher.
  • Promises,” by Catherine Gaskin. Pulpy romance set during World War I!

I read these and other titles, often repeatedly, for years. I didn’t begin to question the philosophy of the “condensed book” until I had read both the RDCB version of Erich Segal‘s “Love Story” and the full-length version — which wasn’t exactly long to begin with.

The tipping point: The condensed version changed “son of a bitch” to “S.O.B.”

Years before my little anti-censorship soul blossomed, I knew something was wrong.

As a teenager, I sought out and read the full-length versions of several of my favorite stories. The parts that were left out — including violence, sex, profanity and basic exposition — were the parts that gave these stories life. I realized I was reading stories that had been neutered by a team of merciless, puritanical editors.

I lost patience with the anthology. I could no longer read without wondering what was missing. There wasn’t much of a public dialogue about what Reader’s Digest was doing, but the garage sales and thrift stores that held endless shelves full of the familiar hardback books spoke volumes. Nobody wanted them. They were a waste of space.

As a passionate reader and book-lover, it’s hard to say these things. But that’s how I felt, as a moody teenager: cheated.

As an adult, I’m a bit more forgiving. I look back on those volumes as a bright spot in my childhood. They ignited my curiosity, and they exposed me to worlds far beyond those of my young-adult-literature heroes and heroines. In a pre-Internet world, they fed my imagination and my lust for knowledge and experience. And when my husband’s grandfather passed away in 2010, I spent the better part of a week curled up with the set of volumes from the 1980s that I found in his grandparents’ Milwaukee guest bedroom, re-reading such favorites as “Jane’s House” and “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino.”

I don’t agree with the idea of cutting a book to make it more digestible for more people. There are better ways to capture readers’ attention. But I’m glad the books were available to me, and that they helped me understand — years before it had any professional relevance to me — the difference between good and bad editing.

 

 

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