A colossus crumbles

A tweet this morning from @WoodenHorse Pub caught my eye: "Reader's Digest Association reportedly is almost out of cash & trying not to default. Downgraded by S & P this month."

To anyone growing up on the 1950s and 1960s, seeing that tweet is like reading that the Empire State Building is being demolished for scrap metal and landfill. The Digest was the voice and badge of God-fearing middle-class America, found in homes as frequently as the Bible. It was anti-Communist and anti-smoking. Its sanitized jokes in "Humor in Uniform" and "Life in These United States" did get a little risque with an occasional "hell" or "damn," but that was OK because the Digest could be trusted not to corrupt.

My relationship with the Digest was intense and personal. I was ravenous for reading matter, which was in scarce supply in Eastern Kentucky in my childhood. There was no public library in Fleming County until 1964, though the bookmobile started appearing a year or two before that, and the resources in the schools were scanty. But everyone, including my grandparents, got the Digest, seldom throwing it out, and I romped through the back issues.

I was even given a dispensation to read at the dinner table, a double benefit, since my head was down when the backbiting began.

Then, on a visit, I discovered that my other grandmother, my father's mother, had literally never thrown an issue away. On a table in her living room were stacks of Digests from the Second World War, thin monthlies without advertising. Samuel Hopkins Adams writing about Alexander Woollcott! Over many visits I worked my way through the lot.

Then, too, there were the condensed books, of which a limited supply was available. I still remember details, though not the title or author, of a novel that I realized later was based on the Collyer brothers, the doomed hoarders.

Over time, as other materials became more readily available and my tastes grew more sophisticated, I drifted away from the Digest. Haven't read it in years. Decades. And I don't know what has caused its decline. Perhaps, like the Saturday Evening Post, to which my grandparents also subscribed, its audience grew too old and too rural to appeal to advertisers. (I still remember that last, desperate effort of the Post to hold on to readers by risking quality, engaging Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne.) Or the public's tastes just changed and the magazine didn't.

I'm not under any illusions about the Digest. My distaste for it was stimulated when it published with lip-smacking enthusiasm an account of the massacres of Communists in Indonesia in the mid-1960s. (Previously, a graphic account of the way the Communists treated prisoners in the 1956 uprising prefigured the torture porn of 24.)  I moved beyond its stodgy moralism and middlebrow aesthetic.

But still, dubious as its nutritive value was, it fed me when I was hungry. I owe it a measure of gratitude for that. 


Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad