When I was in college, I worked in the circulation department of the Tampa Public Library. One of my many duties was to empty the book drop. It was a drive-by book drop, so people could, and did, put things in there that they never would have delivered to the front desk. I should have been issued a full hazmat suit to perform this task, because people would use the book drop as both a trash can and a toilet (even though those things you probably wouldn’t flush in your home john). So in addition to pulling out books we also had to fish out and discard a lot of moist unmentionables.
People also used the book drop to donate books. The library would sell a lot of those books. You could get five paperbacks for a buck. Readers’ Digest Condensed Books were often donated and went straight into the dumpster. We, as literature snobs, referred to as these tomes as Condemned Books.
Condemned Books were made for people who didn’t enjoy reading. These were people who thought, “I’d like to know enough about the book in case it ever comes up in conversation, but I don’t want to sit through the whole thing.” Each volume of Condemned Books had four or five full length books significantly abridged of material that was viewed by editors as insignificant.
For a while, my mother subscribed to Condemned Books, but she also took Dexedrine. Talk about speed reading. Once my Uncle Harvey Horace Greeley Spaulding Derby (and if you think that’s weird, you should have met my grandmother) gave me a Condemned Book for Christmas. I am sure that it was one that he either read and regifted or didn’t like, so he pawned it off on his nephew. I remember being underwhelmed. He could have given me a Matchbox car or batteries for my Motoriffic cars, but nooo! All I remember about the book was that one of the slashed selections was The Good Earth by Pearle S. Buck, which is a really tough sell to a ten-year-old boy.
I always wondered about Condemned Books editors. They were probably people who really hated English class and found their dream job in taking a great piece of literature and mutilating it. I picture someone with a red pen crossing out all the adjectives in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, leaving only a three-panel brochure about life in the South. Take THAT, Mrs. Terry, my sophomore English teacher who forced me to read A Separate Peace and deny the fact that it contained homosexual overtones!
I’ll bet the Senior Editor in charge of those “books” was just a blocked, unpublished novelist who outsourced all the assignments to a summer intern who worked in the broom closet while he swilled Scotch on the rocks in his windowed office while periodically cursing at his arch enemy, the typewriter.
To: Kahil Gerbil, Senior Editor, Readers Digest Condensed Books
From: Harmonia Munk, Junior Abridger
Thank you for the books you have assigned me to read and make suggestions regarding what we can cut/modify. I have read (or at least scanned through) all of them, and here are my conclusions.
The Bible: Adam & Eve, blah, blah, blah, sleeping with a man as a woman, abomination, blah, blah, blah. To everything, Turn, Turn, Turn, etc.
Moby Dick: Call him Captain instead of Ishmael. Then just cut to the chase.
The Catcher in the Rye: Let’s skip all that stuff when Holden’s running around in New York. Change point of view to sister Phoebe’s, but in third person.
Love Story: Let’s cut out all that upper class/working class crap. Give Jenny Chronic Fatigue Syndrome instead of Leukemia. Throw in kids. Think: Preppy, I need to take a nap. You nurse the twins again.
1984: First of all, let’s change the title to 2084. Remove outdated technology. Instant pamphlet!
Deliverance: Readers’ Digest is a family publication, so we’ll pull the rape scene and give the guy poison ivy instead. And that gets relieved with some aloe the boys find now that nobody’s being raped.
The Hours: We can change it to The Hour and delete all that past hokum that makes it more than an hour read. Let's just deal with the man who jumps out the window and call it a day.
Sophie’s Choice: The Nazis agree to kill Sophie and let the kids live. We can cut out a lot of book with that one small change. Change title to Adolph’s Choice.
The Joy Luck Club: Way too much redundancy what with all those Chinese. Instead of rotating between all those families, just have one family and throw in some Uncle Ben's "best quality" rice recipes.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman: The lieutenant floats up on shore on a log. After she nurses him back to health, Miss Woodruff/Mrs. Roughwood marries him. Again, throw in a kid or two. It always works in sitcoms. Forget the back story about the actors. That’s just distracting.
The World According to Garp: Again, family publication. Remove the penile dismemberment and those annoying Ellen Jamesians. Make Roberta Muldoon, the transgendered chick, a male homosexual. They are so much more loveable.
Brideshead Revisited: First of all, where’s the prequel to this called just Brideshead? Shouldn’t we butcher that one first? If not, change one of the dudes to a chick, and make the family agnostic instead of Catholic.
In Cold Blood: Change the setting to a state where there’s no death penalty.
To Kill a Mockingbird: Can’t we just make Tom Robinson white? Cut the dog shooting scene (PETA pressure). Take Dill completely out. He serves no purpose. And make Scout a boy; otherwise the readers will think she’ll grow up to be a lesbian. Isn’t Jem redundant?
Lord of the Flies: Just give Piggy some extended wear contact lenses.
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