One of the local shops in Stonington, The Dry Dock, always has a bookshelf in front of the store that offers free books. It’s impossible not to stop and take a gander at what’s available, and yesterday I noticed a book that brought back memories — a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books.
I’m not sure whether Reader’s Digest still comes up with “condensed books” — or, for that matter, whether Reader’s Digest itself is still published — but there was a time in the ’60s and early ’70s when our family subscribed to the magazine and got the condensed books, too. I remember Mom reading the condensed books and remarking that you wouldn’t even have known that the books were condensed. Of course, unless you had done a side-by-side comparison of the actual novel and the condensed book, you wouldn’t know what had hit the cutting room floor in the “condensation” process. Significant subplots, back stories, ancillary characters, scenes that helped to fully flesh out the contours and personalities of the main characters — they all could be lopped out by the Reader’s Digest editors who wanted to shrink novels and non-fiction works down to a manageable size for the busy person who just didn’t have the time to read a full-blown book.
I don’t recall ever reading one of the condensed books that were delivered to our house, although I occasionally wished that Reader‘s Digest had done condensed versions of some of the ponderous tomes we had to read in high school. (This was before I discovered Cliff’s Notes.) I always wondered, though, how the authors involved reacted to the finished, condensed product. I’m sure they liked the payment they received for allowing their work to be condensed, but how did they feel about the liberal editing that occurred as part of the process? Did the authors actually read the condensed versions to see how their work was affected? Did they think that the condensation cut the heart out of their books, or changed their focus, or did they feel deep down that the editing process had actually improved their work? Given the amount of time and effort writers put into a novel, it would be tough to come to the conclusion that the book you labored over was better without some of the subplots and character-building scenes.