Reader’s Digest, the world’s first general interest magazine, was first published in 1922. Its growth was spectacular: from 5,000 copies on inception, circulation grew to 62,000 in 1929, touched 1.457 million in 1935, and scaled its peak of 17.5 million in 1988.
Today, despite competition from television, video games and special interest magazines, its 49 editions in 21 languages still sell a healthy 10.5 million copies. There has been hardly any change in the contents or format.
In 1939, at 17, Reader’s Digest retained its formula of supporting free enterprise, family values, moral and religious values and general opposition to Communism, socialism, trade unionism, smoking and alcoholism. Founder-editors Dewitt Wallace and his wife Lila Acheson Wallace, were in charge and continued to edit the magazine till 1962.
An RD in 1939 generally had around 144 pages, all in black and white. There were no photographs, colour section or ads. The cover was the ‘Table of Contents’, announcing 30-odd articles on different topics. The Wallace philosophy of informing, educating and entertaining American readers with a careful selection of articles from hundreds of American magazines, all suitably condensed, rewritten and edited, had continued and the 1939 Digest had only such “pick-up” articles. Now-iconic departments like ‘Humour in Uniform’ or ‘Life in the United States’ had not yet made their appearance. The hugely popular ‘Word Power’ would start in January 1945 and the name of the compiler of this word quiz, Wilfred Funk, featured from the next month.
What were the contents of the 1939 issues like? One of the most admired and popular pieces was ‘A Gift from Heaven’, by Charles Lindberg, the aviator. Tailor-made for the RD taste, the piece dealt with aviation, geography and peace, and tellingly commented, “A great industrialised nation may conquer the world in the span of a life, but its Achilles heel is Time.”
The articles were all picked up from well-known publications— American Mercury, American Magazine, Current History, American Legion and so on. One such pick-up from the Forum, titled ‘California’s Grapes of Wrath’, attacked John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, for its excessive concern for the poor. Always concerned with nature and environment issues, even in 1939, RD carried an article on a radically new concept of forestry management, ‘Pine Tree Bankers’, by Leslie Pomeroy, a leading consultant in the new concept of forest management.
It was still early days of World War II. The US was not directly involved yet and there wasn’t much awareness of the Nazi menace. Britain was fighting a lone battle. But RD did carry a piece on the menace of fascism. In the years to come, as the war spread and America actively involved, the magazine did not lag in denouncing the Nazi terror and supporting the Allied cause. But in 1939, despite the unease at Hitler’s progress, it was still a wait-and-watch policy.
By 1939, though it was only 17, the success of Reader’s Digest was secure and well-established. There had been enough drama at its origin, which highlighted the typical American enterprise. Wallace and his wife, Lila, from humble surroundings, read hundreds of magazines, selected those which would appeal to American readers, condensed, rewrote and edited them to about four or five pages and produced a no-frills magazine where only the contents counted. Again, by themselves, he couple pooled in all their resources, solicited subscribers and the 5,000 copies of first issue in February 1922 were sold out. As the couple nervously waited, in the days to come no one cancelled their subscriptions.
Though only 17, Reader’s Digest in 1939 was well on its way to become a national institution like Coca Cola, Apple Pie and the White House.
Gangadhar has served as an assistant editor with Reader’s Digest (India)
When I get a copy of Readers Digest, I don't know, if I will appreciate, as I would like, what I should. Because of the nature of the magazine, one can come to any story, different from the last one, read in the same magazine. This is good in a news magazine, and it was a bit different, because Readers Digest was the only one, of it's kind. People kept issues bought in Singapore, of the magazine, in India. I remember borrowing the magazine at a very young age. I mean, I was asked to take it, without asking.
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT