CORNELIA BESSIE: I also had a wonderful publishing experience.

First I should say that Michael and I always had a game that we played when we were bored. This game was as follows: “If you had read WAR AND PEACE in manuscript, would you have known it was a great book? Or would you have said, ‘We’ll do this, Mr. Tolstoy, but would you please remove a hundred pages of manuscript?’”

So: on my second or third day I’m sitting in this office, looking out at the green fields of Reader’s Digest in Pleasantville, and there is on my desk sat an almost impossible-to-decipher typescript. I started reading, and on page five I thought, “I don’t believe this. I have spent years in a first-rate publishing house and have almost never met literature.” And then, at The Reader’s Digest, on my second day, there it was: literature.

It was Lampedusa’s THE LEOPARD.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: My God. And it was condensed?

MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, not yet.

CORNELIA BESSIE: I knew nobody. There was this odd thing: I had been hired, and was hired by seeing everyone, including both Wallaces [Dewitt and Lila Atcheson Wallace, owners] separately. I mean, here I was, not a very high-up person. I went down to see my boss, who was a lovely man, and said, “This thing has happened. Here’s literature.” And he smiled and said, “Don’t give it to anyone else. Give it to me.” He took it home, came back in the morning, and said, “Come into my office. I’m going to give you a lesson in publishing.” He called the Book-of-the-Month Club and said, “Have you seen this book?” “Yes.” “Have you declined it?” “Yes.” He said: “Recall it.” He could say that to the Book-of-the-Month Club; and he did. They recalled it; they did it; we did it, and the book took off.

Now, The Reader’s Digest Book Club polls its readership on what they like and they don’t like. Just before I left, a year later, my boss and I had a giggling fit: because THE LEOPARD polled third from the bottom of Reader’s Digest books! But he and I were very proud of ourselves for having done it. (Laughs)

MICHAEL BESSIE: Let me intrude here just to say that Cornelia’s had the experience, and I’ve observed it also: if the Reader’s Digest did nothing else, it developed skills, as Cornelia has said. I have yet to see any book that I’ve had anything to do with that wasn’t, if not improved by the condensation, at least not destroyed.

CORNELIA BESSIE: They have a really extraordinary technique. You don’t get the book: any more than the movie The English Patient is THE ENGLISH PATIENT; but you get a smell....



CORNELIA BESSIE: There was another moment. I went to my then-boss and said, “I’ve just read a very pretty book. It’s quiet, it’s charming; it probably won’t do anything in the trade because it’s quiet, but I like it a lot: will you read it?” He read it, and said, “Yes, let’s do it.” It was a book called TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD [by Harper Lee], which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

I read the book in manuscript -- you got them in proof or in manuscript, so you had to make up your mind before you knew anything...

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: There’s a very nice expression on your face as you tell that story.

CORNELIA BESSIE: Well, it was fun. (Laughs) “It’s a very quiet book, it won’t go anywhere, but it’s nice.” (Laughter)

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: After THE LEOPARD, it’s a one-two punch, isn’t it.

CORNELIA BESSIE: It does show you that there is something, whatever that instinct is, that is the “editorial instinct.” You know. It’s like falling in love. You know when you’re barely into the book that something special is going on.


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