I have been reading the Readers Digest almost all my life. My first exposure to it was on vacations at my grandfather’s house in Mangalore in the early fifties. I was the only kid there, more often than not, and in the afternoons I used to climb to the lone room on the second floor, a room that no one ever seemed to go to. It was bare except for a couch and two glass fronted cabinets filled with books, mostly bound copies of Readers Digests from the forties. I spent many happy afternoons there reading those volumes, aware of the passage of time only by the chiming of the grandfather clock on the landing.
As a kid of nine or ten, much of the Readers Digest content was beyond my understanding and of no interest to me. But there was plenty else to fascinate me. Among my favorite features was ” The Most Unforgettable Character I have met”, ” Life in these United States” and ” Laughter is the Best medicine”. I also liked to test myself with the Word Power Quizzes. ( I was terrible at first, but gradually got better). These and articles culled from The Saturday Evening Post, the Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, Colliers etc. nurtured my fascination with the United States and things American. This was my only exposure to the larger world since none of the magazines themselves were generally available in India. There were articles by John Steinbeck, Paul Gallico, Clarence Day, Carl Sandburg, Thor Heyerdahl, Booth Tarkington, Ernie Pyle, A.J. Cronin and other famous writers though, at the time, I didn’t know how famous they were.
One of my favorites was a reminiscence by James Norman Hall who later wrote ” The Mutiny on the Bounty” with Charles Nordhoff. Titled ” Transaction in Tahiti”, it told of a time in his life when he almost gave up on his dream of becoming a writer. In 1925, Hall was living in Tahiti down to his last few dollars and with no prospects of selling his work. He was living on a meager diet of tinned beef and coffee and had given himself three months before he chucked it all and gave up his dreams of becoming a writer. Earlier he had tried to grow his own vegetables but given up the effort after several failures. So he gave away his seeds to an elderly Chinese, Hop Sing. Three days later, Hop Sing turned up unannounced and gave him three watermelons, a bottle of wine, a basket of eggs and a hen. Another neighbor showed him how to catch and eat the land crabs that had destroyed his kitchen garden and Hop Sings brother-in-law , Lee Fat gave him even more gifts. All this fortified Hall’s resolve and when he dashed off some more articles, his luck changed, they were accepted and he was on his way to becoming a successful writer. I can’t in a few sentences convey how magical the article was but it has beautifully written and remained in my memory long, long afterwards.
After I came to the U.S in 1968, I occasionally tried to read the Digest but it was not the same. I preferred to read the originals in the magazines themselves rather than the condensations in the Digest. And I was turned off by the political bent of the publishers, Dean and Lila Acheson Wallace, which was far to the right for my liking. I did like certain features such as ” Points to Ponder” and ” Quotable Quotes” that I learned to cherry pick but I gradually lost interest in the Digest.
When I picked up a couple of issues of the Digest at the library last week , it was over 15 years since I’d last touched one. Having now gone through them, I have to say that the Readers Digest today is not a patch on what it once was. That the issues are so much thinner was understandable. After all, as print readership has declined, newspapers and magazines have cut back on the page count. However, what saddened me was the quality of the articles. Many of them were how to articles ( ” Genius uses for your microwave”), medical advice ( “Seeing my diagnosis differently”; “Urine trouble”) and lots of short features without much depth ( ” 100 Word true stories”). Several of the features were collections of anecdotes, which may have been ” cute” or funny but ultimately felt like the print equivalent of America’s Funniest Videos.
I also felt some of the old time favorites had been dumbed down to suit today’s readership. For example, “Word Power” tests readers’ vocabulary with fifteen multiple choice questions. The old Digest, I seem to remember, asked readers to choose the correct answer from four choices; now there are only three alternatives to choose from, thus making it easier for the reader to get the answer right.
I’m sure the publishers have done their market research and are giving the public what it wants. The short fluffy content is no doubt what today’s TV addicted public with its fondness for 30 second sound bites wants or can handle. More’s the pity.
P.S Some time ago, I picked up a Readers Digest Anthology (” The 30th Anniversary Readers Digest Reader, published 1951) at a library book sale. It was the best fifty cents I ever spent. It contained many of the old favorites including “Transaction in Tahiti”. The new Readers Digest may not be to my liking but I now have something to remind me of what it used to be.