Doing the Right thing Reader's Digest's lasting appeal: Condensed and conservative


The elderly woman sat patiently in the waiting room of the Ellicott City auto repair shop as mechanic Steve Eakle finished changing the oil in her car. She picked up a back issue of Reader's Digest from the stack of old magazines on the table and began to read. Mr. Eakle appeared a few moments later, told her the car was done, and off she went.

But the look on his youthful face was one of bemused consternation.

"Do you think I should say something?" he whispered to a friend. "She took the Reader's Digest."

The friend said something about it being no doubt inadvertent.

"Oh I know," smiled Mr. Eakle ruefully. "Trouble is, I like reading those stories."

Stories such as the ones in the current issue:

Savaged By a Grizzly. Eat More, Weigh Less. China's Bloodiest Secret. Give Yourself a Winning Edge. Where Elvis Lives. What You Should Know About Male Menopause. Most Important Hour in a Child'sDay. Drama in Real life: Trapped In a Volcano!

Now who but those terminally upbeat, finger-on-the-pulse-of-Everyman folks in Pleasantville would have dared an exclamation point on the volcano story?

That's Pleasantville, of course, as in the upstate New York home of what is billed as the world's most successful magazine -- a monthly compilation of highly squeezed-down stories from other publications, mixed with original, often politically conservative, pieces, and so many quippy, quotable bits of Americana that one shudders to think what would become of after-dinner speakers the world over if Reader's Digest were to cease publishing.

But neither Mr. Eakle nor his customer, nor 100 million other readers need worry, for the Digest is not about to cease anything. Last year the Reader's Digest Association Inc., of which the magazine is but a small part, took in $2.6 billion in revenues through subscriptions, sales of condensed books, specialty books, videos, tapes, CDs and other magazines, all hyped in its much-copied direct-mail triumph, the annual Reader's Digest Sweepstakes.

As for the magazine itself, founded on a shoestring in 1922 by the playboy son of a minister, its circulation worldwide is 28 million -- 16.5 million in the United States alone, making it second only to Modern Maturity in this country, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation figures. Worldwide, the Digest publishes 41 editions in 17 languages and claims 100 million readers.

"Walk down any street," intones Digest spokesman Craig Lowder, "you'll find it in every fourth house. Go through any phone book: every fourth number. Fly over a city at night sometime. Look down at those lights: every fourth one."

With confidence like that, it's no wonder that not even John Heidenry's recent Digest history, "Theirs Was The Kingdom" -- suggestingthat Dewitt Wallace, the magazine's reclusive founder, lived a dark, lonely life greatly at odds with the homey values his magazine espoused -- could draw more than a sniff. "We were very disappointed," says Mr. Lowder. "There was more gossip and innuendo than fact in that book."

A mere blip on the screen to a company that placed among the top five in the Fortune 500, Forbes 500 and Business Week 1,000 rankings last year, and will test the waters of TV this fall with a one-hour special to be called simply "Reader's Digest: On Television."

Still, it's that very simplicity that much of the so-called literary world holds against the Digest.

"It's definitely looked down upon," says Duke University professor Cathy N. Davidson, who is also national president of the American Studies Association. "It's that appeal to the lowest common denominator, the lowbrow. And it's offensive to some to have their work condensed."

Indeed, playwright Alexander Woollcott, a founder of the legendary Algonquin Round Table that gave birth to the New Yorker magazine, once complained that Wallace "has destroyed the pleasure of reading." Columnist Mary McGrory called the Digest "the monthly for people who hate to read."

In Pleasantville, they roll their eyes.

"With the exception of a relatively small but influential group of people on the island of Manhattan," scolds Mr. Lowder, "and inside the Beltway and others of similar mind-set in cities like L.A. and Chicago, the Reader's Digest brand is golden. You can believe what you read in Reader's Digest. If it's there you can trust it, cite it as gospel, act on it. You can change people's lives, save people's lives. We get letters like this by the truckload daily. Of course we do."

Yet even the critics have nice things to say about the Digest. "It contains some of the best human interest stories in journalism," says Mr. Heidenry, "and some of the greatest Americana you will find anywhere. There the Reader's Digest is superb. The formula Wallace createdstill appeals to the Heartland or Middle America."

The formula, says Mr. Lowder, is anything but complicated.

"From our point of view people are more alike than different," he says. "Everyone likes to laugh, wants to be a better husband or wife, wants to be entertained, to be informed, enriched, even inspired. The magazine editors do that through great narrative, tightly condensed to get the essence of the story. Essentially Reader's Digest magazine tells stories and they're the best storytellers in the world."

In fact, if you hold a Digest from the '50s next to the most recent issue you won't find much difference in the types of articles offered. The basic features that have characterized its gentle approach are still there: Humor in Uniform, Laughter Is the Best Medicine, Towards More Picturesque Speech, The Most Unforgettable Character.

True, there is more color, more illustrations and even photographs. But change isn't something they take lightly in Pleasantville. A few years ago they changed the typeface, but the outcry from readers was so negative they quickly changed it back. "That shouldn't surprise you," says Mr. Lowder. "They said, 'You'retampering with my favorite magazine.' "

Still, says Mr. Heidenry, the Digest has a blind side. "It persists in a right wing ideology," he says, "and they don't print two sides to a question. It was the perfect exemplar of the monolithic conformist Eisenhower '50s, it got Nixon elected and became the mouthpiece of the silent majority and it was the perfect editorial embodiment of Reagan's political philosophy in the '80s."

Because of that, he says, the Digest has yet to achieve true editorial greatness. "It's a simplistic magazine. They don't put in any complicated articles. It has an attitude of gently paddling down the river of life."

But that's also what makes it appealing, says Professor Davidson at Duke.

"The Digest gives you a sense that you have a handle on the whole world of knowledge without having to read the whole book," she says. "It's sort of a very soothing way of saying the world is going too fast but at least I can get a handle on it. It gives you a little bit of control."

The founder was a study of contradictions

He was the kind of boss who would throw a lavish party for his employees, then hide in the back seat of his guests' cars, eavesdropping for critical remarks as they drove home.

He insisted that Reader's Digest, the magazine he founded in 1922, espouse family values, even though he cheated on his wife openly, conducting affairs with the wife of his best friend and with his wife's favorite niece.

He had a temper, and supposedly once bludgeoned two cocker spaniels to death with a chain. Yet he would regularly put out feed for wild deer, and once rescinded the company's parking policy that gave editors the best spots, because a lowly employee had to walk too far to his car.

He was Dewitt Wallace, the son of a minister, who with his wife, Lila, the daughter of a minister, ruled for six decades over a multibillion-dollar publishing empire that sprang from a simple notion of appealing to as many readers as possible with condensed articles of lasting interest. (Wounded in World War I, he grew impatient at the length of magazine articles he read while recuperating.)

During the Wallace's lifetime and beyond, they gave money to charities in stunning quantity -- even though their biographer, John Heidenry, in his recent book "Theirs was the Kingdom," calls Dewitt Wallace "the most famous unknown man of his time."

And yet, says Mr. Heidenry, Wallace was, in spite of his obvious flaws "a man evincing a genuine streak of nobility and largeness of spirit." He was also "the great Garbo of publishing, assiduously avoiding publicity," he says."He was inexplicably lonely."

When he died in 1981 (Mrs. Wallace died in 1984) the New York Times said that he had helped forge America's self-image.

"That self-image was also created in conjunction with people who were there at the creation of the original mass media," says Mr. Heidenry. "That included movies, radio and magazines and the club was limited to 5 or 6 members. Henry Luce, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn. Dewitt Wallace was one of them."

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