July 30
I'm a lawyer in my past life, who got the kids through college and decided to try something different and a little more fun. A used book store sounded like a good idea, so that's where I am for now. I just hadn't counted on a recession or E-readers and am a little afraid there's going to be a third act. In the meantime, I have plenty to read and a little time to write. Not a bad way to spend a day.


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JANUARY 23, 2013 10:14AM

Reader's Digest Condensed Books Marching Off the Cliff

Rate: 9 Flag

Reader's Digest Condensed Books show up at the store like a never ending line of lemmings--marching to extinction with the help of my hands. They're the only books that I can put out on the free shelf and know that they'll stay there until someone needs books for the set of a high school play or an art project. They're the only books that I never feel guilty about when I take them out of circulation.

"Jump!" I say, as I drop them over the cliff of the dumpster. But it didn't stop the lemmings and it doesn't stop the books. Try as I might, I can't keep up with them.

I wasn't all that familiar with Reader's Digest books until I opened the store. Growing up in the 50's, I had seen them on the bookshelf at my parents' house and have vague memories of them arriving in the mail for a few years in my childhood. But, mainly my parents were library goers. And thrifty. Even the promise of "four books for the price of one," couldn't keep them subscribed for long.

When they started arriving at the store, there was a part of me that thought I should hold on to them because at some point they were going to be collectables.  Particularly at the rate that people seemed to be getting rid of them. They were the first thing I saw at garage sales and thrift stores. You couldn't go to an estate sale without seeing a shelf full. People dropped them off anonymously in front of the store and ran.

"They're fading away like the olive green shag carpet and pink toilets of the 60's," I thought. Except that they weren't.

They're hanging in there like Elvis. And, to my surprise, they just keep coming--still available by subscription, in hard cover of paperback editions, although they're now now called Select Editions. 

I'm a firm believer that reading anything is good. Want a western? Go for it. A romance? Okay with me. You learn something from everything. And reading is for entertainment too. Maybe condensed books have a place in there.

But as I dabble with writing, the very idea of condensed books bothers me. I find it hard to believe that if I ever managed to write an actual book, I'd happily agree to let someone cut 3 out of every 4 words I had labored over. It doesn't seem like something to be happy about.

Getting an agent, yes. Seeing your words in bound form, yes. But getting a call from Reader's Digest saying they want to cut your book by three-fourths. That seems like an insult to writers and readers.

"Four Books for the price of one."

"Not exactly," I think, as I head out to the dumpster. 


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Dinosaurs! How about National Geographics? I guess the photos save them from extinction. Readers Digest Condensed Books sounds alot like baby food to me but maybe that is all some people can handle. Lovely writing in this post. Thanks.
I thoroughly enjoyed "A Tale Of Half A City" where "It was the best of times." Period.
zanelle--National Geographic is still doing okay, I think. But those old ones that everybody saves thinking they're worth a lot of money could probably be recycled.

Stim--I love it!
My mom subscribed for many years. They often contained selections from cartoon books such as "Peanuts" collections. She eventually gave them away to the Central Missouri Home for Wayward Boys, where they were probably used to clog the toilets. My question to you--why buy them except as interior decoration books-by-the-yard?
Con--I don't buy them and I don't sell them. People drop them off and run. I'm left to deal with them.
They're like condensed milk: they have a long shelf life. R
I loved them.
A boxcutter to carve out a chamber inside ~ no safer place to store whatever I didn't want anyone else to find.
A hilarious look at Americana! I can't believe how (as a writer) I HATE them now, but I grew up reading them. Maybe they're like movies - not quite as good as the book but an invitation to read them?
Gerald--That they do. Good for the bomb shelter, I guess.

Kim--Good to see you. They make a fairly nice sculpture too.

Brazen--They do seem to have been a gateway to reading for a lot of people, so that's good.
Apparently we're better at condensed soup than books--with no practical method to warehouse--no cost benefit, other than the immediacy of perceived convenience. As a boy, my favorite uncle (a shower ring salesman) would visit at that odd hour, his shirt cuffs rolled, those wild wide ties--regardless of humidity.
He always nurtured our love of the written word. He was a light traveler, wore a simple plaid jacket, and that leather overnight satchel of his was never without several RD Condensed Books. Issues of the magazine itself were bookmarked with sticks of Double Mint gum. He insisted RD kept him 'on the pulse.' At sunrise that huge Pontiac of his would wake the dead rumbling off back to his Southern route. Until the next time.
A new RD array and a jar of Smuckers Raspberry and maybe a bowed bag of pecans were always left on the screen porch. Ultimately my sister and I wound up as readers for a blind lady across the way. Her seeing-eye dog napping, listening, too. It was not a fancy library, but we were more than happy to share what we had.
I read a few of them when I was a kid and it's news to me they're still around. Nowadays I can't see reading super-abridged versions, though when I abandoned A Hundred Years of Solitude around the 60 year mark, maybe the RD version would have helped me see it through to the end.
J.D.--It's clear from comments that Reader's Digest books created some good memories and nurtured some readers. I feel a little guilty and may have to utter a sincere "rest in peace" at my next dumpster run.

Abrawang--I have my own method of condensing when I'm reading a book that I'm struggling to finish but don't want to completely walk away from. I just read the first sentence of every paragraph. That's probably an insult to the author too, but if they haven't hooked me by the middle of the book, I'm okay with it.
I'd like to know more about the process of condensing. After all, Shakespeare's plays are rarely produced as written, they are usually condensed and that's Shakespeare, for Pete's sake. I wonder if it's like translating, more an art than a craft, or if it's just chop and serve. Interesting post!
Biblio--I searched around a bit to see what I could find out about the process of condensing but didn't find much. It doesn't usually seem to be done by the author but I didn't find anything about what, if any, control or approval the author might have. Or if there are people who are recognized for it, as good translators are. I don't think it rises to that level though. More the chop and serve.
Really interesting and observant piece, jl. I don't know if I've heard of these or not - I recall reading abridged versions of certain books as a kid but they weren't Readers Digest; they were stories that may have been more accessible to a younger reader by condensing the text. Although now that you've written about it, I have to wonder - what was left out? And what was the point? It's basically an insult to the author, I think. But judging by the volume you're getting, they must have been popular. How strange that a reader would prefer a condensed version to the original work.
I actually grew up reading Readers Digests so I guess its not as strange to me. Some of those airport novels were just the right size for ...err..train journeys. Lovely post as always.
Margaret--You're probably a little young to remember them in their heyday. But now that you know, I bet you'll start seeing them.

icyhighs--If the comments here are any indication, the books gave some good writers a start. That's a good thing.
I so agree. I never got the concept of condensing a book. I mean, there are some huge books out there - maybe a lot of Victor Hugo's stuff could be improved by condensing it a bit (that 100 page digression about nuns in "Les Miserables for example...). But I've always felt that this is for the author to do. It's sad that people would want to read the shorter version of a book, not give time to the whole work.