Reader’s Digest was essential to being American in the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up with the magazine, the big books authoritative on facts (home repair, the Constitution), and I especially am grateful to the Condensed Books division.
Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it? Or illogical. A bookish boy, a book maven, should grow up a purist. I should always finish every book I begin. I should expect a text to be bound unto itself, not thrown in with a mix of what happens to be contemporary as when you load up a buffet plate. I should always demand the unabridged.
Fortunately for my future reading, I began reading Reader’s Digest Condensed Books when I was in 4th grade. My mother subscribed to the plan, 4 or 5 fat volumes per year, 600 pages per volume, smaller than the typical hardcover. To me they were adult books — hardcover, well-bound, the spines marked in elegant order with the titles of the books “condensed” within. The dust jackets were always illustrations of the books, and the binding always had some wallpaper design, but the interiors were magical. Each book, each selection, had an illustrator assigned to it. He or she contributed a two page spread for the title and about four or five full-page captures of a scene from the story. Generally the illustrations were in the sketchy realistic matte-colors established in American magazines from the 40s onward, a second golden age of The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers and Esquire and Look. I knew comic books and the newspaper funnies were one end of the spectrum, and I knew the museum art in frames was the other end. These illustrations in the Condensed Books were the middle ground. They told a story, they were mysterious and adult and sophisticated, and they helped in reading above my level.
The Condensed Book program picked excellent writers (yes, now perhaps dismissed as middlebrow writers) — Herman Wouk, Nathaniel Benchley, Dorothy Gilman, Helen MacInnes, Frederick Forsyth, James Michener, Wilbur Smith, Allen Drury, Paul Gallico — the list must be colossal from the decades. Apparently, the work of the editors, the condensers, was so skilled that many writers admitted that the essence of their hard-won work was retained, even burnished. Arthur Hailey once wrote that he felt a novel of his had been improved.
I knew what I knew from 4th grade through high school: the Condensed Books provided solid, reliable, fast-moving stories while preserving the taste of the different writers. If I enjoyed the selection, I would remember the writer. If I were really charmed, I would find the unabridged book or go hunting for other books by the author. The experience always led to other books, other writers. What more can one ask?