Some friends and I were recently discussing the various books that hepped them to the whole reading thing when we were kids, and I had a little difficulty thinking of any specific ones at first.
Books have been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember. My parents may have not been ideal in many regards, but they were avid readers who maintained a vast library. There wasn’t a room in our tiny apartment that didn’t have some space allocated for some form of reading material. The enclosed porch which functioned as the laundry room and my playroom had bookshelves running along every wall.
If my parents noticed a topic which caught my interest — be it UFOs, warships, or marine life — some new tome about the subject would mysteriously appear in our home shortly afterward, strategically placed somewhere I’d be most likely to notice it. Being “into” reading was a default state for our family, as much a past of the routine as my father’s drunken rages or my mother’s fits of psychological brittleness. It wasn’t a thing where I could pick out a singular thread and say “this is where it began.”
And then I remembered the “Illustrated Classic Editions” series.
I got my first one at school book fair in either second of third grade. It was Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I was sold on it by the cover alone — a lurid depiction of the Nautilus caught up in the tentacles of a giant octopus, done in the style of an old time engraving and enhanced by a bright-yet-muted color palette. I read and re-read it at least a dozen times over the next few years, until the cover peeled and cracked and the pages were stained with countless greasy thumbprints.
The concept behind the Illustrated Classic line was cheap, squarebound paperback digests offering “abridged” (actually rewritten) versions of various landmarks of Western literature. To sweeten the pot — and hold the attention of easily distracted young readers — each text page was paired with a drawing depicting the action in a generic Bronze Age funnybook style. Though the books appeared fairly chunky for their size, the text-picture format and simplified language meant that a dedicated reader could polish the weightiest of the tomes off in a single rainy afternoon.
(This also made them perfect for book reports, with the added benefit of impressing one’s teacher for selecting something a bit more “highbrow” than Madeline or Make Way for Ducklings. Of such tactical decisions were inflated tales of child prodigyhood made.)
The books were pretty common sale items at places like CVS or Osco Drug, where they’d toss the entire lot in a bin and sell them for fifty cents a pop. Because they were books, and not some random plastic plaything that happened to catch my eye, my mom was always willing to scrape up enough change for me to buy a couple on family shopping trips. It didn’t stop her from encouraging me to read the authentic source material, but she also knew enough not to derail a good thing.
The uniformity of the Illustrated Classic trade dress — the cover layouts, fonts, shape, style, and color aesthetic — helped sustain my interesting in series. It appealed to the collector in me, especially after my library of them had grown enough to be given a proper display on the top of my dresser. I don’t know if that was an intentional move on the part of the publisher, but it did move me to keep buying — and reading — the books.
By the time my tweener years rolled around, I had around two dozen of the books. Though I began with pretty standard kid-appeal classics written by Wells, Verne, Poe (the cover to Tales of Mystery and Terror, with a crimson sun bleeding down through the jagged crack in the doomed House of Usher, still gives me the willies), I eventually gravitated to more “sophisticated” offerings by Kipling, Melville, Dumas, Dickens, and others. Between those books, and my mother’s enthusiasm about Classical mythology and fine art, I got a pretty decent survey course in the so-called “Western Tradition” before I finished primary school (and that in turn provided a strong critical foundation for when I eventually got around to broadening my cultural horizons).
In my teen and college years, after I moved onto the cheap Signet paperback line of “classics,” the first wave of titles I picked up to read were the unabridged editions of my old Illustrated Classics faves — A Narrative of the Mutiny on board His Majesty’s Ship “Bounty,”, The Time Machine, Kidnapped, and, yes, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. (So mission accomplished, Ma.) The Count of Monte Cristo and A Tale of Two Cities have remained in my “top five” novels list to the present day.
The affection enkindled by the simplified versions carried over to the genuine article. When I was a kid, the plot mattered more than the wordcraft, yet having that basic narrative knowledge made it easier to appreciate and absorb the style and technique of the authors. It only got weird when I realized that the Illustrated Classics folks added several action-oriented chapters inspired by Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come to their edition of The Time Machine, either to pad out the length of the novel or offset the bleakness of the original’s ending. It made me wonder what other flourishes may have been inserted into the line and somehow managed to become a recurring in-joke between Lil Bro and me for a few years.
For all my attempts to reassemble the material culture of my childhood, I’ve never bothered to chase down any Illustrated Classics books. They have sentimental value and personal significance, but they’re also a bit irrelevant now that I own copies of books they bowdlerized. The gorgeous covers are the only remaining draw for me, and I can gawk at those on the internet without having to figure out where I’m going to store the damn things.
It might be different if there was a kid in the house, but probably not. We’ve got our own wall-to-wall collection of tomes to intrigue and beguile any young bookworm that joins our family.
It worked for me, after all.