The Reader’s Digest: An invaluable source of knowledge for millions

My regular readers will recall an article I published last October about how the Encyclopaedia Britannica influenced my writing as far back as 1966.

Another publication that also contributed greatly to my writing was the Reader’s Digest, which I began to read in primary school at about the same time.

The online description of the Reader’s Digest “About” section states that “the publication unites its readers and like no other brand through the simplest of acts: sharing stories, laughs, and great advice".

Heading into its 100th anniversary, Reader’s Digest is America’s fourth largest-circulation magazine brand, standing out now more than ever in today’s cultural landscape due to its themes of optimism, faith, heroism, trust, humour, and wellness.

Our new brand, the Healthy, covers health and medical information with depth and authority, while our books, including the famous condensed fiction series “Select Editions”, deliver a bundle of emotions from curiosity and amazement to reassurance, gratitude, and amusement.

In all its work, Reader’s Digest carries on its singular, historic vision: to bring out the good in people and families everywhere.”

My favourite sections of the Reader’s Digest were “Increase your Word Power”, a quiz in which I used to score well, “Humour the Best Medicine”, “Humour in Uniform”, a collection of military jokes as the title suggests, “Drama in Real Life” survival stories by contributors from all over the world, and a lengthier article at the end, usually condensed from a published book.

Reader’s Digest was first published in 1922 as a digest of condensed articles of topical interest and entertainment value taken from other periodicals.

Founded on a low budget by DeWitt Wallace and his wife, Lila Acheson, after numerous magazine publishers had rejected the idea, the pocket-size magazine appealed from the start to popular tastes.

Wallace was the son of a professor at Presbyterian Macalester College in St Paul, Minnesota. He attended Macalester for two years and then left to work for a bank. He began keeping a card index of his favourite articles in current periodicals.

He subsequently entered the University of California, Berkely, and soon met Lila Bell Acheson while staying with a friend in Tacoma, Washington.

Wallace successfully condensed some government pamphlets into a booklet on agriculture that he sold, and he was thinking of extending his condensed booklet technique to articles of general interest when the United States entered World War I.

He served in the US army, and, while recovering from severe wounds, he plotted the magazine digest further. Wallace carefully assembled a sample issue in 1920, which he had printed and sent out, one copy at a time, to various publishers, none of whom were interested.

In 1921, Wallace married Acheson who believed in his idea for a digest. The couple began to publish the Reader’s Digest by themselves, marketing it by direct mail from a basement underneath a Greenwich Village speakeasy.

The first issue appeared in February 1922. The magazine’s circulation grew rapidly, rising from 1,500 in 1922 to 200,000 in 1929 and about 23 million (worldwide) in 50 editions and 21 languages by the early 21st century.

Wallace served as editor from 1921 to 1965, and as chairman from 1921 to 1973. The Reader’s Digest carried only articles condensed or excerpted from other magazines for 11 years but began to include occasional original articles in 1933 and condensed versions of topical books in 1934.

The periodical began to appear in foreign language editions in 1940, when advertisements were introduced to meet increased distribution costs.

As publishers, the Wallace’s adopted a positive tone, which critics considered to be banal or reactionary, while printing articles on a wide range of subjects.

The enormous success of the magazine brought them great wealth, and the couple became active in support of numerous philanthropic causes, notably the restoration of Claude Monet’s house and grounds at Giverny, France, and the preservation of temples at Abu Simbel, Egypt.

In 1972, the Wallace’s were presented the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund (reorganised in 2003 as the Wallace Foundation) became a major philanthropic benefactor of the arts and culture.

What attracted me most to the Reader’s Digest was the diverse nature of its articles from all over the world; knowledge that you could not find by merely reading academic literature.

Of course, my contemporaries regarded me to be a bit of a nerd, but I have no regrets because I gained a broader world view which has come in handy for my writing later on in life. The human-interest stories and man’s indomitable spirit were of special interest to me.

Unfortunately, as I have said before, we seem to have lost that reading culture and we have come to rely on the click of a button to obtain information on the internet, some of which may be inaccurate. We don’t research to understand the story behind the story.

More is the pity!

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