"Book Popularizer" dies. The word "popularizer," tragically, lives on.

John S. Zinsser Jr., who compressed countless works of fiction for the Readers Digest Condensed Books series, died yesterday at age 84.

Zinsser's job was to take great works of fiction and make them succinct works of fiction, shortening the classics into bite-sized bits for the Condensed series. I can't imagine what that would do to you. To spend your life knocking the heavy-breathing landscape descriptions out of a Lawrence novel, or the light-loafered witticisms from Wilde -- that has to be bad for your soul. Right?

Well, according to his son, "He believed ardently in the Digest's populist mission of making well-written books with strong stories and interesting characters available to people who might not otherwise be readers." I think the other name for people who do that job is "movie producer."

It's funny: this process makes literary snobs shudder in horror, but it's their fault, really. When you hold up a book as an example of something everyone must read in order to be considered educated or cultured or even just human, you're putting more pressure on it than any book can handle. People who are unmoved by it still feel compelled to read it, and then you find yourself with the Readers Digest books clotting the shelves.

When are we going to admit that some people are deeply stirred by Shakespeare and some people prefer Tolkein? And some people just don't like to read at all, and that's okay too. Let's give each other a break, already.

Meanwhile, a moment of silence for a guy who did his best to fall in line with the demands of a cultureless society wanting desperately to class itself up.

When he retired in 1987, he told Publishers Weekly, "I do wish that all the books weren't so long and getting longer," adding that "the days of a good story told in a reasonable number of pages — like 'Cry, the Beloved Country' in 283; 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in 296 — seem gone."

Zinsser reportedly died of a heart attack. There is no word yet as to whether this was caused by an attempt to condense David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.