Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The company we keep


When I was growing up, the shelves in our house held row upon row of books. Or at least, the best parts of books -- books boiled down from an unwieldy 400 pages to their 80 page essence, cleansed of all the fatty, non-nutritional bits such as adjectives and subordinate characters. I’m talking about the Reader’s Digest Condensed books.

Each Reader’s Digest Condensed Book anthology was a full house of popular fiction – two inspirational novels and three filthy ones -- delivered by mail 8 times a year. As I recall, the inspirational tales were printed on brown butcher paper so one could, presumably, skip straight over those to the good stuff.

My parents never read the Readers Digest Condensed books, they certainly never bought them. No need to buy a cow when we had the public library.

No, the books must have been passed along to us by neighbors, just as my mother’s friends would pass her their old Vogues and Harpers Bazaar. I loved Vogue. Though only 10 at the time, to this day I remember a photo with the caption, “I’m walking my hair!” that showed a model swinging her long gold braid in the sunshine. I made plans to start walking my hair too.

But even the most frugal middle-class household had a subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine, filled mainly with dreary articles ( “I am Joe’s Liver”), save for the joke pages and quizzes. For awhile my whole family would sit down to take the How to Increase Your Wordpower quiz. As native speakers, we kids argued about any definition we missed. No surprise there, we argued all the time anyway – for sport, in deadly earnest -- often losing sight of which it was this time. I suppose that’s why my parents eventually decided to let us each increase our wordpower on our own time.

Old copies of Reader’s Digest ended up in the reading room, as ubiquitous to the middle class bathroom as a fuzzy beige rug, little shells of scented soap, and guest towels.

… Or did you have company towels? Or both? Something never addressed in the Wordpower quiz was the crevice, crevasse, canyon that exists between company and guests. I remember an argument I had with my best friend as to the difference. It was my contention that in the visitor hierarchy, company reigned supreme, and only company could use the best towels. All visitors, however, fell under the umbrella of guests, which meant everyone except those actually living in the house had permission to use the guest towels.

Suffering from the insidious side effects of wordpower, I would argue about anything.

37 comments:

  1. We subscribed to Reader's Digest (we lived in the Midwest, after all) but I don't remember reading anything in it but the jokes. They were every bit as funny as the jokes on Bazooka gum wrappers. Wanna argue about it?

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  2. Oh yes, Reader's Digest, many memories. I only read the jokes and the wisecracks (as my mother called them).

    As for the towels, we had a special hook with Guest written on it. Do they still make them? I could do with some now.

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  3. Same thing here..........we subcribed to the magazine which was kept in the throne room. Someone gave us (or probably my dad garbage picked as he was the worlds best) a box of the condensed novels...........which made THEIR way too the throne room but arguing NEVER.....we were SO civilized!

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  4. I see the condensed books have now been upgraded to Reader's Digest Select Editions.

    GG

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  5. At about age 10 or 11, I read The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which I found in a Reader's Digest Condensed Book. That is the story on which Damn Yankees! was based. Thanks for reminding me about those condensed books, something I may never have thought about again.

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  6. You're welcome Earl, I'm here to serve.

    Look at the alarming titles on the Reader's Digest Mag in the picture -- The A Bomb, They Brought Home the Wrong Baby, The Disasterous Three D's of Parenthood...

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  7. It was National Geographic in our house. We never had special anything for guests. We rarely had guests. I'm guessing you were a ringer on the debating team.

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  8. What did you have, a guest bathroom? Sweet!!

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  9. Such verbosity!

    A condensed version of "The Company We Keep" should be sent with alacrity to:

    http://www.rd.com/

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  10. The headlines are amusing. We have come a long way in artificial insemination and solar power, but we're still trying to figure out those Mormons.

    After we read the RD, we folded back the pages into triangles and used them as little Christmas tree decorations at Grandma's house.

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  11. Gads, I'm feeling deprived. We didn't have Readers Digest around. Dad had some playboys hidden in the garage (along with a few zither albums). Our shell soap was pink as was our towels and fuzzy rug.

    I still keep a fuzzy rug and guest towels. Nothing pisses me off more then when guest use them. (I'm with Susan on the Mormons).

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  12. Oh dear. I'm supposed to have special guest towels?

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  13. Reader's Digest articles were like bad-for-you-treats: You knew you shouldn't start reading them, but as soon as you did, you couldn't stop. Something about the writing was incredibly compelling - at least for a kid.

    Anytime we had (what we thought was) an amusing family experiences, my dad would instruct me to write it up and submit it to RD, because it was sure-fire to be published. I never did.

    Our guest bathroom was called The Powder Room and was all done up in gold-and-orange flocked wallpaper with fancy guest towels and little soaps. It was off-limits to us, which made it a favorite place to play when mom was not home.

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  14. Oh Karen, I had forgotten the flocked wallpaper. In one of our houses we too had a powder room, all done up in reds and golds, plus a chandelier. One of my boyfriends went to use the facilities, opened the door and said, "What the hell is in there, a whorehouse?"

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  15. Look at this universal response! Was RD a pillar of a culture or what? And wasn’t it harmless? And at least as good as the TV of those days? What compares to it today? And don’t most novels in any age need abridging?

    I’d love to say more, but I have to go flock the wallpaper.

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  16. I still can't get over that you all had guest bathrooms - er, powder rooms! Only in America...
    In India our bathroom had a floor hole with feet pads on either side of it... and obviously, no guest towels. I grew up on using my left hand for only one thing...
    YIKES!

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  17. my mom lives in a nursing home but insists that we all have a subscription to Reader's Digest. I keep them in their original plastic...

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  18. I loved the Reader's Digest condensed books, which my parents received like clockwork. They were shared by everyone in the family.

    However, when they decided to a condensed version of the Bible, all Hell broke loose throughotu the nation and they backed away from that project

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  19. Oh, and when I spent a day in the jury assembly room at the Pasadena courthouse a couple of weeks ago, the bookshelf there was filled with old RD condensed books. That was quite a treat!

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  20. Oh Banjo and Ann, you're right. Reader's Digest is the glue that keeps middle class memories together. Or is it powder rooms? Guest towels? I'd pay good money to see the Bible abridged.

    Brenda, so you had a bit of discomfort. You also had camels outside your door; I've seen the pictures.

    But Ken, you win the sweetest comment of the day. I wish you'd crack one of those babies open and tell us what Reader's Digest looks like today. At least take the wordpower quiz and tell us if you pass.

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  21. Excellent per the norm, KB.

    IMHO, once you get into the Bible you just don't want it to end. Although, in my younger days I wooda settled for it being at least banned from my life, if not abridged. Live & Learn.

    But, I can get you an abridged version, KB - for some of your Good money.

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  22. Your reference to the bathroom as reading room reminded me of the public bathroom on a kibbutz in Israel where someone had written in a stall in Hebrew: This is not a library.

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  23. Mister Earl - the library I work at has a similar sign in the restrooms: "This is the not the library's reading room. It is east of the lobby." The sign is in 7 different languages. Why???

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  24. Because the bathrooms have no Reader's Digest.

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  25. I've said it before and I'll say it again, KM is a good boy. Now strip that plastic off and read 'em to please your momma!

    And I'll just say right here and now. I have linen guest towels that I IRON for my guests and it's pleasure to have something extra special for them. It's the southern way you know.

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  26. I would never argue with you, Virg.

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  27. Today everything has changed. The today’s bathroom has music/radio, even you can listen to the music when you are having a shower...and of course with all other activities.
    I don’t know if it matter whether you are a guest or not.

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  28. Oh, those condensed books! My uncle actually had his novel included in one of those back in the early 80s.

    We didn't have a guest bathroom, but we did have those little shell-shaped soaps.

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  29. Yes, we had the Reader's Digest Mag at home while growing up. Laughter's the Best Medicine was my fave. Of course. I think we finally managed to cancel that subscription 18 months ago...

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  30. Oh, our powder room had a chandelier too! It's all coming back to me now.

    There was even a little frosted glass door that separated la toilette from the rest of the facilities. I loved the way it clicked open and shut with a little magnet.

    My mother always kept fancy room deodorizer aerosols in there and when we used it for hide and seek ambushes, we would come out spraying. I'm surprised no one was blinded.

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  31. None of that chandelier, shell soap, guest towel stuff for us. My parents were pragmatic liberals (or liberal pragmatists, not sure which). Our bathrooms had new-fangled ceiling fans. And if you wanted to read you went elsewhere.

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  32. Karen's mom could never understand why Laura Ashley Lavendar never lasted as long as the Glade.

    P, was it the liberals or the pragmatists who didn't have powder rooms?

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  33. We didn't have ceiling fan, but we had an exhaust fan. Which my father called the Poot Fan.

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  34. Does anyone have an extra can of spray starch pour moi? FOR THE LINEN GUEST TOWELS......not the 'other"!

    My WV is artypof...... i can't go there

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  35. I think that's what it was, Laurie, a Poot Fan. I love that.

    I'm pretty sure the pragmatists didn't have powder rooms. "Powder room" has that liberal ring to it, don't you think? But I couldn't find the political reference on Wikipedia.

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  36. Nooooooooooo.

    Reader's Digest rot the brain.

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