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Thank heavens for books… and grandmothers…

This is the Memorial Day weekend here in the United States — and on the actual holiday itself The Legal Genealogist will speak of one particular loss in the family.

But today… on the day reserved for writing about my family generally… a reminder that Memorial Day weekend is also the traditional start to the summer season as well.

It’s the time when folks felt it was appropriate all of a sudden to wear white.1

And the time when schools started to wrap things up for the year, with many of my southern cousins already out of school for the summer.2

And the time when my mother began getting ready to pack us all up and head south for the summer.

To my grandparents’ farm (“the Farm”3) in Central Virginia.

Where I was promptly … sigh … the odd cousin out.

You see, for the entirety of the school year I was the cherished4 younger-by-two-years-and-six-days sister. The constant companion, roommate and playmate of my sister Diana. One half of a go-everywhere-do-everything-together team.

But the minute we hit the ground running at the Farm, I was chopped liver.

My cousin Kay, two years older than Diana, had decreed (probably about the time I was born) that Diana was the absolute youngest cousin who could ever, under any circumstances, be counted among the Older Cousins. No joining in with what they were doing, oh no.

I was, by cousinly fiat, Too Young for the older cousins.

Now you might think that in a family as large as mine — I have roughly a kazillion first cousins5 — there’d be plenty of other cousins to pal around with.

Except that I am three full years older than the next oldest set of cousins, four full years older than the next, and so on.

If I did what they were doing, I was utterly bored out of my skull. And if I led them on the kinds of adventures I wanted to be doing, I’d be (and often was) in trouble with the grown-ups.

I was, by parental fiat, Too Old for the younger cousins.

Which is why, so much of the time, I really hated spending time at the Farm.

Until my grandmother, Opal (Robertson) Cottrell (1898-1995), realized what was going on and stepped in and saved my life.

To save me from the wrath of half of the grownups, who were tired of fishing their kids out of whatever trouble I’d led them into this time, and the other half of the grownups who were tired of hearing me whine about how I was bored, one hot summer day when I was eight or nine years old, my grandmother took me by the hand and led me up the narrow steps from the kitchen to what we called Mike’s room.6

And there she pointed out to me the shelves just below the ceiling that ran all the way around the room.

Shelves that were filled with books.

Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, to be exact.

Publication of these condensed books began with volume 1 in the spring of 1950 and continued under that name until volume 232 in the winter of 1997:

The Reader’s Digest Condensed Books were a series of hardcover anthology collections, published by the American general interest monthly family magazine Reader’s Digest and distributed by direct mail. Most volumes contained five (although a considerable minority consisted of three, four, or six) current best-selling novels and nonfiction books which were abridged (or “condensed”) specifically for Reader’s Digest.


Occasional titles (The Leopard (Summer 1960), The Days Were Too Short (Autumn 1960) or Papillon (Autumn 1970) were selected from outside the English-speaking world and published as abridgments of the translated originals. In a few rare cases, new editions of older works (Up from Slavery, originally published in 1901 (Autumn 1960), A Roving Commission: My Early Life, originally published in 1930 (Autumn 1951) or Goodbye Mr. Chips, originally published in 1934 (Summer 1961) were also among the condensed selections.7

There were dozens of these volumes by the time my grandmother introduced me to them — and more every year that we summered at the Farm.

And I had carte blanche to read them.

I remember taking the first one and climbing a tree down by the garden gate so that the younger cousins couldn’t follow me. There was a fork up well above where the younger cousins could reach that made a perfect library perch.

And so I read.

Over that summer and the summers to come, I read every single one of those condensed books.

I read Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Home Town by Cleveland Amory. The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson.

I devoured The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Return to Paradise by James A. Michener. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier.

I learned about Life Among the Savages from Shirley Jackson and The Desperate Hours from Joseph Hayes and The China I Knew (My Several Worlds) from Pearl S. Buck.

I cried over Old Yeller by Fred Gipson and Good-bye, My Lady by James Street and Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton.

And I began a lifelong love affair with science fiction with A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke and with politics with Advise and Consent by Allen Drury and with the law and social justice with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and with history with The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop.

Now, as a teenager and young adult and over the years throughout my life, I have re-read many of these in their full unabridged versions.

But so many of them I wouldn’t even have known about except for being the odd cousin out.

Thank heavens for books…

And for grandmothers…

And even for being the odd cousin out.


Image: “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and Best Sellers,” user Terriloiu, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

  1. See e.g. Madeline Shields, “Do You Have to Wait Until After Memorial Day to Wear White?,” ( : accessed 26 May 2017).
  2. See Wikipedia (, “Summer vacation: United States,” rev. 21 May 2017.
  3. See Judy G. Russell, “End of an era,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 31 Mar 2012 ( : accessed 26 May 2017).
  4. Okay, maybe tolerated is a better word.
  5. Okay, so roughly 40, but it sometimes seemed — and seems — like a kazillion.
  6. My mother’s youngest brother, my uncle Mike, hadn’t lived in that room for years by this time, but it remained, until the day the Farm was sold, Mike’s room.
  7. Wikipedia (, “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books,” rev. 18 Apr 2017.
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