Back in the 1980s, the Time Life organization was leading a strange double existence. On the one hand, its namesake magazines, Time and Life, were attempting to distinguish themselves with, respectively, journalistic and photographic excellence. On the other hand, Time Life Books was constantly hawking its decidedly déclassé mail-order volumes about such topics as home repair and elves through a series of relentless, low-rent television commercials. Now, as part of Atlas Obscura’s “Miracles Week,” writer Eric Grundhauser has penned perhaps the definitive history of the most infamous Time Life series of all: Mysteries Of The Unknown, which dominated the airwaves with its wild accounts of UFOs, phantoms, and psychic powers from 1987 to 1991. Much better remembered than the books themselves were the commercials, which featured the unforgettable slogan “Read the book!”, which became an inescapable catchphrase of the era. As the article points out, the ubiquitous ads ran frequently on MTV and Nickelodeon back then, thus making a strong impression on younger viewers.
The origins of Mysteries Of The Unknown are, perhaps not surprisingly, prosaic. It was simple economics, supply and demand. According to Tom Corry, former product manager of Time Life Books, Mysteries was merely a spin-off of an existing Time Life series called The Enchanted World. This was the golden age of so-called books as furniture, and Corry reports that Time Life polled its readership and decided that the company could “squeeze a series” out of the metaphysical and turn a tidy profit in the process. Not that the company was inordinately proud of this undignified endeavor. “Oh yeah,” says Corry. “They hated that stuff.” Initially, Mysteries wasn’t even a hit. But the series got a sales jolt from the so-called Harmonic Convergence in August 1987, a rare alignment of the planets which took on mystical significance for many. “Right after that,” reports Corry, “in the fall of ’87, we couldn’t print enough books.” It was the iconic advertising campaign by Wunderman Worldwide, however, that truly put Mysteries over the top. One memorable spot even featured future Oscar winner Julianne Moore as a woman who was a non-believer until having an out of body experience one lonely night.
Despite the blatant cheesiness of the series, whose ads eventually started promising to send viewers “power crystals” along with the books, Corry insists that such Mysteries Of The Unknown volumes as Psychic Voyages and Spirit Summonings were thoroughly and rigidly researched in the best Time Life tradition. “They had a real focus on editorial excellence,” he remembers. The editors never really warmed to the subject matter, Corry explains, but they did their level best to get to the bottom of these mysteries. Faced with slumping sales, the series went the way of all flesh in 1991, and Time Life Books folded in 2003. Today, Mysteries Of The Unknown lives on through Ebay auctions and in the fading memories of those who grew up watching those indelible, tacky ads.