Reader's Digest at 100
When someone puts together compilation, or a mixtape, they’re showing you what they like, or introducing you to new things. When Reader's Digest began, this is what they offered readers. The first issue, from February 1922, promised 31 articles, “each article of enduring value and interest, in condensed and compact form.”
So they would cut out the boring bits and give the reader the key elements.
This first issue included an article on prisons (focusing on cruel punishments) from the Atlantic; the state of the Philippines, from Asia, the American Magazine on the Orient; the future of poison gas, from Current History; how to complain effectively, from McClure’s; fireflies from Country Life; and a bizarrely eugenicsy piece from Physical Culture about the need for human beauty, and how Ellis Island immigrants are ugly and have too many kids.
Many of the articles were very short indeed, not even a whole page of the compact format. For longer articles, they helpfully numbered the paragraphs. There were no illustrations. The selections came not just from general interest magazines from specialist journals, a mix of expert commentary and lighter pieces. Each issue a highlights reel of contemporary print media.
The early twentieth century had seen an explosion of subscription magazines. A spread-out population and the arrival of free rural postal delivery made subscriptions to magazines (and their sisters, sales catalogs) grow in America as nowhere else. This gave an incredible cornucopia of material for Reader’s Digest to summarise.
This was a brilliant idea, ahead of its time. Few people would read all of Popular Science Monthly, Scribners, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, still less the multi-volume “Art and Science of Selling”, published by the National Salesman’s Training Association: all of which were among those represented in the first two issues.
In 1922, most families didn’t have a radio. The average person’s source of news was the local paper, or newsreels if they went to the pictures. RD opened a window to a sample of the discussions taking place across the media world. They also brought journalists from niche publications to a wider audience.
What they offered caught on fast. By issue 2 they had brief testimonials from happy readers. Over the decades, the format came to include lighter-note type pieces and invited readers to submit jokes and observations. The “True Story” pieces became very popular, and the it happened to me genre became a staple across other magazines too. (In Reader's Digest, these stories stick to the mild and happy ending. Not the survival horror versions read elsewhere)
This cross-section of highbrow to (let’s be fair) middlebrow pieces, made it the perfect family coffee table mag: never an ounce of smut, it is the middliest of middle-class material.
By the 1930s Reader's Digest began commissioning their own original reported pieces, and be influential as a source as well a an aggregator. (A RD story on Chappaquiddick in 1980 is credited with derailing Ted Kennedy's presidential bid).
The Reader's Digest solidified its role as cultural arbiter for the middle classes in 1950 with the introduction of their condensed books. Abridged versions of bestsellers in anthology format were sent to subscribers. (The same people who don’t have time to read all the magazines on the stand certainly don’t have time to read a whole James Michener novel, after all).
Their popularity represents a cultural anxiety. The twentieth century was a story of rising tides for many and an expanding postwar middle class. More people had moved into white collar roles, and felt uncertain about their education or position. Reader's Digest was performing a service in telling people what one ought to have read—while also creating the expectation in its own selections.
My Reader's Digest encounters over the years were mostly in waiting rooms. Flicking through stories while glancing up at the clock. Its collection of inoffensive anecdotes and heartwarming stories made it the perfect magazine for dentists to subscribe.
They just published their centennial issue (which I read on my kindle), and list some highlights of their history. They still carried stories from elsewhere, including a piece on coral reefs from Texas Monthly, and some original pieces. Their celebration includes a reflection on Alex Haley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr and a piece on readers whose lives were saved by Reader’s Digest, because an article taught them to recognise symptoms of serious conditions.
There is a sweet story of a woman was injured hiking and who fell in love with the man who rescued her - the kind of warm-fuzzy narrative the Readers Digest started leaning into after the 1950s (if you like Hallmark Movies, you’ll love these stories). The anecdotes and humor tend towards the “dad joke” groaner.
To look at an old Reader's Digest is to recognize the contraction of print media. Long gone are Colliers, Scribners, and McClure’s. Other magazines are limping along, barely. It’s heartening that RD is still going, still supporting journalism, and still bringing readers what they want.