100 Years of “Reader’s Digest”

Criswell predicts that not many of my compadres will be celebrating this particular day, even if they knew it was upon us. The first issue of Reader’s Digest was published on February 5, 1922, 100 years ago today. I was startled this morning to learn that it is still being published! I’m sure I haven’t seen an issue of it in many decades.

Young people who may have no idea what it is may startled to know that, time was when Reader’s Digest was America’s most widely read magazine. Legend has it that founder DeWitt Wallace had been wounded in World War One, and spent his convalesence voraciously poring over magazines. This gave him his literal million-dollar idea: to publish a magazine that condensed articles from all the other magazines, presenting them together in one master periodical. I wonder how this would have fared on Shark Tank? In the real world, it proved a masterstroke. Naturally, its tactic of simplifying and shortening magazine articles came to be widely scorned as part of the dumbing down of American culture. And yet, the vaudeville booster in me sees the virtues, the inherent 20th century American qualities. America the instant! America the quick! America the accessible! America the affordable! There is something that is democratic about it. And there is something about the “bundling together” that is like vaudeville, although you could say that of all magazines.

You can acknowledge, surely, that there is something anti-elitist about Reader’s Digest, something populist. Whereas, most of my fancy schmancy New York friends grew up in homes where the parents read another magazine that will soon be turning 100, The New Yorker, Reader’s Digest probably had a circulation that outdid that hoity-toity rag by an order of magnitude or two. If The New Yorker is the epitome of urban sophistication, Reader’s Digest is the opposite. The house I grew up in was a Reader’s Digest house. At some early date, my teenage years probably, I dropped it as being too lightweight and conservative. But at this time in my life, I can at least acknowledge the impact it had on me as a child, which was great. I can’t speak to whether or not my experience was typical, but in those days before 24 hours news, lots of people, even humble people like my parents, supplemented their single daily hour of evening network television news with newspapers and magazines. In addition to our local newspapers my dad also read the New York tabloids at work on his lunchbreak, and subscribed to weekly news magazines (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News) as well as Reader’s Digest and National Geographic. And so, even as child, I poured through those, and was affected by the experience and learned a lot about the world that way.

The thing about Reader’s Digest (and the Wallaces who published it) was that, even though its content was transplanted, it had a very old-fashioned, rock-ribbed Republican point of view. I associate it with the same sort of Americana kitsch one got from the Saturday Evening Post, with the art of Norman Rockwell, and gentle joke columns like “Humor in Uniform” (funny military anecdotes). Bruno Kirby’s character in Good Morning Vietnam boasts that he has had jokes published in Reader’s Digest — an economical way for the film-maker to tell you what kind of guy he is. In the post-war era The Wallaces were staunchly anti-communist, a reasonable position in a time when Europe and Asia seemed to be falling to authoritarian dictatorships like dominos, though the loudest anti-left voices in America tended to get pretty ugly in the McCarthy era, so there is a certain amount of guilt-by-association. In my time, the Wallaces were pro-Nixon, and later pro-Reagan.

And yet, in the age of the Internet, one can’t help but look back wistfully. For, as right-leaning as Reader’s Digest was, the internet has not amplified THAT sort of voice. Reader’s Digest had short fiction excerpts, and poems, and profiles of famous people and political analysis of a rudimentary sort (the sort suitable to a mass audience). The kind of voices that are being amplified NOW via social media, opinion blogs, and the like are more like what used to be published back in the day in pamphlets and newsletters by obscure, extremist wackos, The George Lincoln Rockwells of the world. And there is an ocean of difference between him and NORMAN Rockwell. People knew what was actuallly happening 50 and 100 years ago. Like, in the real world. Oh for a Common Man exposed to the hard news analysis of Reader’s Digest! It’s got to be better than OAN, right?

Go here to see Reader’s Digest own centennial celebration.