The news that a publishing house is planning to release a set of condensed novels reminded me of Readers Digest Condensed books and how much I used to enjoy them in my youth.
Nowadays, condensed books are disdained ; reading them seems to be considered infra dig. At library book sales, they often remain unsold even when offered for the bargain price of 50 cents each.
What a contrast with the way we used to treasure them when I was growing up in India. For a period of five or six years, my parents bought them regularly and we used to read them cover to cover and display them proudly in our glass fronted book case. Some of the titles that I recollect : Trustee from the Toolroom ( Neville Shute), Good Morning Miss Dove ( Frances Gray Patton), Run Silent, Run Deep ( Edward L. Beach), Flamingo Feather ( Laurens Van Der Post) and East of Eden ( John Steinbach). All best sellers in their time and largely forgotten today with the exception of East of Eden which was made into a movie with James Dean. But then, how many of the books we read today will still be read fifty years from now?
RD condensed books were useful because they gave us access to books which would otherwise have been unobtainable. Even had we somehow come across the unabridged versions in a circulating library, we would not have known enough to select them since we had no access to American newspapers and book reviews in India and thus no knowledge of what books would be a good read. Buying the individual books would also have been prohibitively costly. Those were the days long before the Internet , even before television (if you can imagine that) and RD condensed books gave us some idea of the world outside India. Nor did we look down upon them because they were condensed so seamlessly that we were not even aware of it.
Earlier, when I was a pre-teen, I was forced into reading Classics Illustrated comics. I would much rather have read the cowboy comics with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes, the Cisco Kid and Pancho, Lash Larue, Hopalong Cassidy, and Gabby Hayes but my father forbade them in the house. (By the way, I was amazed to discover later that these were all real people and not just comic book characters). However he had no objection to Classics Illustrated and I had a collection of almost 50 of them. As a result, the Classics Illustrated comics were my first ( and often only) exposure to the works of authors like Charles Dickens (The Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, David Copperfield ), Alexander Dumas ( The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers ) , James Fenimore Cooper ( The Last of the Mohicans),and Fyodor Dostoyevsky ( Crime and Punishment). Sometimes, this led me to read the originals. I remember reading not only The Three Musketeers but it’s two sequels, Ten Years Later and Twenty Years After. But, even otherwise, Classics Illustrated gave me a valuable overview of some of the worlds best literature.
Lets face it. As much as we may talk about ” Classic Literature”, the truth is that today many of the great novels of the past are unreadable or , at least ,difficult to read. The pace is too slow or perhaps they are no longer relevant. Then too, some of them are very long and take too much time and effort to read. War and Peace is a good example. No way could I read it in it’s unabridged form. It’s not like seeing a movie which only takes a few hours.
I’m glad I had Readers Digest Condensed books and Classics Illustrated when I was a kid. I just don’t understand why they are looked down upon today. In today’s world, when our lives are so rushed and free time is at such a premium I would have thought they would be welcome. I guess that’s why those publishers are giving it a whirl . It’ll be interesting to see how they fare.