When Books Aren’t Good Enough as They Are Written

Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers, Volume 1, 1966/67 and Reader’s Digest Select Editions, Volume 293, 2007.

When I was a kid, I had a set of Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers. I liked the look of the set on my bookshelf and enjoyed making sure they were in numbered order, but I don’t think I ever read more than one story out of them (“Madame Curie,” I believe) during my entire childhood.

I finally got rid of these books because they always bothered me. I knew they contained condensed versions of novels and I considered it cheating to read condensed books. Why wouldn’t I read the originals as the author intended them?

A few of these Reader’s Digest volumes appeared in my book giveaway box (think unregistered Little Free Library) recently, including the first volume of Best Loved Books, which I owned as a child. (This volume contains “Madame Curie.”) Reader’s Digest also produces a series called Reader’s Digest Select Editions, which used to be called Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Some of these Select Editions were in the giveaway box, too.

A thought struck me as I considered these books:

What gave Reader’s Digest the right to further edit books that had already been edited by the author and publisher?

This created a cascade of questions:

What made Reader’s Digest decide that books aren’t good enough as they are written?

Why don’t authors and publishers protest this treatment of their works? (I certainly hope they get paid a decent amount for this condensed version.)

At what point does Reader’s Digest consider a book edited to their satisfaction? How do they know when to stop editing?

How much do Reader’s Digest’s condensed versions differ from the originals?

Introduction explaining why Reader's Digest creates condensed editions of books for children, Reader's Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers, Volume 1, 1966/67.
Introduction explaining why Reader’s Digest creates condensed editions of books for children, Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers, Volume 1, 1966/67.

In the opening to Volume 1 of Best Loved Books, Reader’s Digest explains that young people’s attention spans are on the wane, but they still need good literature, so RD was willing to provide it in condensed versions. This was in 1966, the copyright date of the book.

Reader’s Digest must love the age of Twitter, which is as condensed as a format can get and speaks to how much our attention spans have apparently dwindled since the 1960s.

The Reader’s Digest magazine was founded by DeWitt Wallace and Lila Bell Wallace in 1922. For the record, while I have long been disturbed by the condensed books, I loved the Reader’s Digest magazine and would read it practically cover-to-cover as a teen. If memory services, a number of the articles within the magazine each month would be republications from other periodicals. Likely, these were condensed, too, but this doesn’t get under my skin the way condensing novels does. Plus, RD included plenty of its own content to its magazine, typically in the form of humor submissions and the vocabulary column.

The magazine enjoys a wide circulation and was at one time the “best-selling consumer magazine in the United States.”

My discomfort over the condensed books notwithstanding, Reader’s Digest has obviously figured out a formula that works with the public.

In looking over RD’s Twitter feed (yes, they are on Twitter!), I can see by the headlines that RD’s winning formula for engaging readers continues.

Of course I followed them, but I’ll leave the condensed volumes for someone else to read.


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