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.