Carolyn Steele Agosta
Readers' Digest Condensed Books
I don’t remember my mother having much time to read while we kids were growing up. There were six of us, to begin with, and my father worked long hours, so it seemed like she was always working – cleaning, doing laundry, ironing, making meals, changing diapers, ironing, running errands and ironing. I can’t remember her actually getting a chance to sit down and read a book, but apparently she did. Must have been after we all went to bed.
In any case, for a few years she collected the Readers’ Digest Condensed Books. These were hardbound anthologies with condensed versions of recent bestsellers. Many of us probably remember those distinctive book spines (now frequently sold on E-Bay as decorative items! What??!!). When I first began reading adult literature, around the age of thirteen, I started with these.
I remember particularly Volume 27, published in Autumn 1956. Although I probably didn’t read it until ten years later, it included The Nun’s Story, Merry Christmas Mr Baxter, The Success, The Diamond Hitch, and The Sleeping Partner. I loved Merry Christmas, Mr Baxter, but I read most of the others too. As was typical, the stories included something inspirational, something funny, something thought-provoking, a western, and a darkish mystery.
What strikes me about those books is the difference from best-sellers today. (Of course, TV shows and movies reveal the same differences.) Today’s popular books are so much darker, and seem to primarily be thrillers, dark mysteries, stories about severely dysfunctional people, books about atrocious events in the past or in a third world country, and – lately – novels set during World War II. I don’t find these fun to read (I don’t so much mind the WWII-related books, but my gosh, there’s a ton of them lately!). And I think it’s because my taste in fiction was set in my early teens and twenties, when the books I had at hand had been written in the 1950’s.
When I was fifteen or sixteen, I regularly babysat for a nice couple with three kids who were always well-behaved. I truly enjoyed babysitting there, not only because the kids were well-behaved, but also because they went to bed early and I had a chance to eat the always-delicious slice of homemade cake that the wife inevitably left for me, and I could also choose from among her Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. One favorite was Volume 71, from August 1967. It included Christy, Life with Father, The Fox and The Hound, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Gabriel Hound.
Again, the stories included something inspiring, something funny, something lighthearted, something more serious, and one darker mystery. A nice variety, but not overwhelmingly dark, the way so many books are now.
After 1997, the Condense Books series became the Select Books series, and continues to this day. The most recent edition included The Long Road to Mercy (a dark thriller), The Lieutenant’s Wife (WW II!), Things You Save in a Fire (inspirational), and The Noel Stranger (romantically inspirational). I don’t particularly feel drawn to read any of them.
Maybe that’s just me, hardening into curmudgeondom. Too many books about women seem to start the same way – she’s a wonderful but misunderstood person who for no discernible reason gets treated badly by her husband or boss or best friend, and she has to start her life completely over. Hopefully in a new, quaint town with quirky residents and a handsome carpenter or architect or dog trainer. Possibly during World War II.
Well, to be fair, bleck only because it has become so formulaic. But still…
One of the things I like about the books I love best is that the characters are much more real. They’re not angels, they’re not devils. They’re normal people trying to deal with various circumstances. (Rather like the characters in the Edward Eager books – normal children trying to figure out magical circumstances.) I guess I like them because they’re about people like me. Not an angel or a devil, just norbal. Perhaps a little confused about circumstances. I like stories where the marriage is good (gasp!), even if sometimes off-kilter. There are still plenty of things to create a plot and narrative tension, even if there are no mass murderers or zombies or cheating husbands and even if the story isn’t set during World War II.
Okay, rant over.
The Readers’ Digest Condensed Books were designed to appeal to mid-America. They did, for that reason, run to less-extreme genres although ‘less-extreme’ meant different things in the 50’s than it did in the 90’s or now. For me, they were a good introduction to adult-level reading (especially since I began reading them at age 13). A short time later, I began reading the paperback novels loaned by a neighbor, including books like To Kill a Mockingbird, West Side Story, Seven Days in May, Joy in the Morning, Up the Down Staircase, and On the Beach. All while still in my early teens.
This morning, over breakfast, I finished reading Come Be My Guest, written in 1971 by Elizabeth Cadell. A light-hearted story about a family dealing with misunderstandings and chicanery. After it was done, I looked the author up on Amazon and was delighted to find she’d written a huge number of books, beginning in the late 1940’s, which I can now look forward to reading. Stumbled across this British author quite by accident, thanks to Amazon’s habit of showing you other books similar to the ones you recently browsed online.
Although I love good old-fashioned books, I also love the new-fashion way of shopping. Which is – when you think about it – not dissimilar to the Readers’ Digest Condensed Books’ mission. To expose you to a variety of novels, so you can find other great authors whom you may not have discovered otherwise. Did any of you grow up reading Readers’ Digest Condensed Books?