Reader’s Digest Grows Up

Readers Digest

Like many Americans, and indeed many people around the world, I’ve been exposed to Reader’s Digest my entire life. We were very poor when I was a child, and couldn’t afford much in the way of reading material; but many compact issues of that cheery, wholesome periodical published somewhere in New York, and even some of its hard-cover distillations of recent bestselling books, still managed to find their way into our household (they all tend to get recirculated a lot).

At an early age, I learned to appreciate the magazine’s inspiring real-life stories, amusing real-life anecdotes, upbeat tone, and informative condensed gleanings from many other publications that I’d never seen or even heard of. And I might add that some of the most hilarious moments I ever saw on The Tonight Show were Johnny Carson’s recurring parodies of RD’s helpful-hints articles.

But I also realized at an early age that an intelligent perusal of RD entailed filtering out a lot of crap. Founded in 1922 by a rock-ribbed right-winger, RD catered wholeheartedly to the longstanding dominant narrative that America was founded by and for right-wing fanatics; and that anything except right-wing fanaticism poses a grim threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Not only did it extol the untainted bliss of life in the dear old U S of A, it also painted an unstintingly grim picture of life in the evil empire of the Soviet Union. Somewhere around my grandparents’ house, I even recall seeing a Reader’s Digest edition of a piece of sophomoric literary agitprop called… let’s see, was it Atlas Yawned? (Presumably, the naughty parts were expunged in the name of American decency.)

The politically themed features of the magazine often followed a formula that I have come to call the bias sandwich. Suppose it ran an expose of a certain type of corruption or incompetence in Washington. The article would begin by providing three or four examples of Democrats indulging in the behavior, then throw in a Republican offender to provide some semblance of balance, then close with another Democrat or two to create a lasting impression. If the article instead examined admirable activity, the proportions would be the same but the polarities would be reversed.

And religion. God yes, it was steeped to the core  in religion. Not just any religion,  but hardcore fundamentalist namby-pamby WASPish Christianity. There were many accounts of real-life “miracles”, and the true meaning of Christmas, and the power of prayer, and anecdotes recounting how “when I was eleven I fell and scraped my knee and my grandmother bandaged it and made me a cup of hot chocolate and I knew then that God would always be there for me.”

All of which seemed perfectly congruent in an era when everyone was white, judges could order people to attend church, and school children wore military-style dog tags so their bodies could be identified in the rubble left by an impending Russian nuking. But it’s a different world now, a less innocent and more adult world. It’s much harder to ignore the fact that there are many kinds of people in the world, people of different races and creeds and proclivities and lifestyles — and most of them are rather decent people. And Reader’s Digest, fortunately, has evolved to reflect this change.

It didn’t happen overnight, but the watershed seems to have occurred right around the turn of the millennium, as if the magazine’s editorship really took to heart the old belief about how the Twenty-First Century was supposed to be an era of wondrous developments. And there were at least three distinct mileposts that stand out.

First, the Digest became more even-handed in its political coverage. It started discussing Republicans with less gushing adoration and Democrats with more basic respect. During a presidential election cycle, you now can expect to see fairly unbiased and substantial interviews with both major candidates. (It doesn’t devote a lot of ink to candidates outside the two-party system, but who does?)

Second, it started publishing letters (emails) from readers. After all, the magazine was named for them. But for a very long time, it was a one-way mirror rather than a dialogue. And that just didn’t seem right for a periodical that was supposed to be the great American vox populi.

Finally, the ever-entertaining National Review ran a hand-wringing lament about the Digest’s sad demise.  The original article by John J. Miller, alas, is no longer accessible for your entertainment, but you can get a good idea of its contents from an amusing commentary on it in The Washington Post. The premier voice of wingnuttery in America believes the Digest is in a sate of sorry decline and depravity? Higher praise than that, my friends, there is simply not.

RD is, to be sure, still a rather conservative magazine. But it’s conservative in the true sense of the word rather than the Fox/ Limbaugh/ National Review sense.  Recently some of its readers felt that one particular little joke in one issue was a bit too risque, so the editor issued an apology and a promise that it wouldn’t happen again. That kind of conservatism may be silly, but at least it isn’t deranged and vicious.

For many generations, Americans have been able to say that they grew up with Reader’s Digest.  But those of the present generation can also say that Reader’s Digest has grown up with them.


  1. I appreciate the nostalgic memories of Reader’s Digest, and the information that, long after I quit reading it, they became a more moderate right wing, publication.

    I also remember spending many happy hours reading the adventure, and survivals stories in that publication during the early 60s, and my recollections of it then, were that whatever political stance was taken by RD’s editors, those points of view, were not really a pressing issue for the son of a working class dad who took care of his family and prospered from the growth of the middle class. Sure I read horror stories about Cuban prisons, and communist dictators, who were out to destroy all the good things about our lives—but such propaganda was basically standard fare back then, and it wasn’t too uncommon for both liberals and conservatives to share common concerns about what Khrushchev, and Castro were up to. All it took was the Cuban Missile crisis and the perceived need for all of us to prepare to survive the inevitability of a nuclear disaster. So, we kept repeating drills in which we covered our heads with our arms, and crouched under our primary school desks—when something like that become a matter of routine, friction between Democrats and Republicans is often not so glaring, or so disrespectful! Both parties frequently co-operated in Congress, and both sides usually nurtured an attitude of respect concerning the legitimacy of the other’s differences. Despite the large number of cultural myths that made up our every day lives, and the frequent patriotic speeches we heard, which were filled with dire warnings, all of these occupied a large place in the news cycle and were shared concerns for both Republicans and Democrats—Fox News was not yet even a gleam in Rush Limbaugh’s eye, nor a routinely distorted history lesson delivered by the likes of Sarah Palin. RD’s section (Humor in Uniform) drew chuckles equally from both sides of the aisles.

    Consequently, I really didn’t understand the antipathy expressed by my parents and neighbors about the dishonest BS undertaken by many politicians–mostly Republicans—or why so many inherent Contradictions concerning civil rights, and their actual lack of actual observation in many areas of the US existed? Many of the American ideal that we were all taught, were of course, extolled in unrealistic ways that colored our eye glasses, and made the world seem rosier than it was, but were simultaneously dire warnings, that made living seem more dangerous than it should have been. Only after becoming a rebellious High School and college student, did I make the connection that my parents had lived with fresh memories of the Roosevelt years, and of a time when partisan animosities were perhaps even more stark and omniscient than they are today. When they complained about the wealthy, and about politicians who tried to stifle progressive legislation, they were reaching back into the Depression years. By the times my sisters were born, (soon after WW II) and me in the early fifties, my parents were still recovering from the insecurity caused by the Depression, and the memories of needing to literally be aware of every penny they spent or earned, merely to survive. Not too long ago, they had lived in a world which had no social security, few worker protection laws, and little government help available towards helping them feed both of their large families, (13 children in my dad’s family and 7 more in my mother’s).

    In the 80’s I asked a friend of mine if he thought that the world of that era was better or worse, than the world of our childhood? He answered simply that in some ways it was worse, and in some ways was better—implying that this was all part of a normal cycle experienced at all times, and by all generations. Considering the mind numbing and spirit stifling dysfunction we now see on Capitol Hill, I sincerely hope he was right. Perhaps when the real world rudely knocks on our doors, it’s just a part of the normal growing pains inherent in both our difficulties, as well as in our rewards.

    No matter what the case, its good to hear that RD actually began softening its conservative journalistic chops around the turn of the century and has quit putting down Democrats so severely, as well as not adulating conservatives in such unreal ways. But no matter how much more knowledgeable we may be about the ways of Washington, and of the world in general, I just can’t help but experience nostalgic memories of the 50s and 60s, no matter how little they conformed with actual reality.

    Perhaps others, near or at retirement age, will know what I mean? I think Paul Simon said it best in “My little Town,” with the words, “I didn’t know nothing I was just my father’s son,” and also, “Its not that the colors are black, its just imagination they lack, back in my little town.”

    I’m glad you wrote this post POP. The world seen through the lens of RD, was entirely different, but in some ways entirely the same. At one time I didn’t care to know the difference, and now I do—either way, I experience a sense of loss whenever I remember that era in any way at all.

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