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Operators Are Standing By: A Look Back at Time Life Books

December 22, 2015

Back in the day, Time Life made a killing by shipping lightly educational book series to households all around the world. How many of these weird book collections do you remember?

Book set

The Civil War

Time Life launched their book division in the early ‘60s. The books were high quality, featured top notch photography and illustrations, and were exhaustively researched. Commercials, often aired late at night or on weekday afternoons, lured in subscribers with tantalizing tidbits and urgent announcers telling them that ‘operators are standing by!” After ordering, subscribers would then receive a new book about every month or so. The company’s series about the American Civil War was, perhaps, the most extensive of them all. It debuted in 1983 and, by the time it finally concluded in 1987, it comprised 28 volumes. By comparison, the company’s series about the entire history of the world was only 24 volumes.

The Enchanted World

After covering a wide array of more serious topics, Time Life’s editors rolled out this “magical” series in the early ‘80s. Still dedicated to offering their readers the best content possible, they recruited consultants like Tristram Potter Coffin, a respected folklore professor from the University of Pennsylvania. Despite this, the decision was made to write the series as a historical retrospective, thus all the stories in the books were presented as real events. For example, the series’ second volume was all about dragons and actually claimed that the legendary beasts roamed the planet in ancient times. Other books in the series focused on wizards, witches, fairies, and the history of Camelot.

Mysteries of the Unknown

Any American kid who grew up in the late ‘80s probably remembers the incredibly creepy commercials that promoted this Time Life series. After The Enchanted World books netted thousands of subscribers, the company rolled out the even nuttier Mysteries of the Unknown. This series focused on aliens, ghosts, and other things that go bump in the night. The first book alone attracted 700,000 orders and the commercials helped make “read the book!” a national punchline. A young Julianne Moore even popped up in one. The future Oscar-winner appeared as a baffled woman discussing an out-of-body experience. You can watch it below.


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