Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 164

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 167

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 170

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 173

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 176

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 178

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 180

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 202

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 206

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 224

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 225

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 227

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 321

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 321

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 321

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.layout.php on line 321

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 54

Warning: Creating default object from empty value in /home/lil58eks/public_html/bleat/wp-content/themes/platformpro/core/library/class.options.metapanel.php on line 47
Wednesday, August 19 | The Bleat.

Reader’s Digest has declared Chapter 11 – or, as the final documents read after their editors finished with them, Chapter 5.  I once wrote that Reader’s Digest contained the first practical application of Nanotechnology – no matter where you put the magazine, tiny mites embedded in the cover would pick it up and move it to the top of the toilet tank.

I have an issue from 1941. Take a look at the topic list.

rd1

There’s an article about the problems of Hollywood, stemming from the pernicious influence of . . . the DOUBLE FEATURE.

“Nobody in Hollywood wants them. Theater owners unanimously oppose them, Women’s clubs, parents, teachers, decry them Your neighbor hates them. So do you. Then who likes them? The juvenile public that wants two-lollipops-for-the-price-of-one. And ages 13 to 21 go to movies more than once a week.”

The article notes that most of what Hollywood pumps out is empty saccharine drivel, and the economies of the business – the contract system, chain consolidation – are ruining is ability to make money. Even worse is the pernicious effect of the blockbuster: “Gone With the Wind” spoiled audiences, and convinced execs to greenlight big expensive productions, but there aren’t enough stories that deserve the treatment. The industry is in a PANIC not seen since talkies upended the rules.

Also from the more-things-change dept., there’s this :

rd2

Downright Agnewesque in its alliteration, that. The fellow who argues that newspapers are abandoning their historic role by failing to support the fellow who eventually wins – a rather curious idea of journalistic responsibility – notes that 50 papers go out of business every year, because they’re biased! He compares them to radio, bound by law to report things straight. Similar to today, except now the supplanting medium is praised for admitting its biases.

I’d like to get full context on the Ickes quote – if it’s accurate, it’s quite remarkable that a government official would upbraid the press for not endorsing the guy who won. No? Right?

The list of topics on the  ’41 cover is insufficiently diverse by modern standards, but you sense that the culture has a core, a dense center. Which it did. The modern RD website has a list of contemporary topics, and it’s the usual green-flecked gruel ladled out in on-the-go portion sizes. Grill healthy! Travel deals! Cut your home costs! Lose 10 pounds for good! Vegetarian Recipes! Advice from experts, like Elizabeth Edwards and Bob Newhart! The only thing the magazine seems to be digesting is the bolus of middle-class anxiety. I could be grilling healthier chicken! I could be asking my contractor one of the ten questions they don’t like! I could be saving big money on a cruise to Aruba!

You can find the same subjects in any modern newspaper or glossy women’s rag, written in the same perky tone, aimed right at the 30-something mom who sorta thinks Kate is a bitch but you know, that hairstyle does work for her. People for whom free-floating anxiety over inconsequential matters is a hobby, a habit, a proof of virtue. I had no idea the magazine had turned into that.

Reader’s Digest was a staple in our house, because Grandma gave it to us every year as a Christmas gift. Until I learned that it was required to make fun of it, I enjoyed every issue. Quizzed myself on the vocabulary test (It pays to increase your word power! Peter Funk was the author, I believe; the name was amusing then, and sounds like a BEFORE part of a Viagra ad now), learned to appreciate the difference at an early age between “Life in These United States” and “Laughter is the Best Medicine.” (Non fiction vs. jokes.)As a hypochondriac from an early age, I avoided “I Am Joe’s Duodenum” or “I Am Joe’s Throbbing Mass of Inevitably Non-Functioning Gristle,” and I never read the Condensed Books. By the time I came along they were mostly expanded articles, running under the “Drama in Real Life(TM)” banner, I think. We had some Condensed Books, which seemed wrong on every possible level, like compressed ice-cream or Star Trek shortened for extra commercials. What would you take out of a book to condense it? Did they just pick characters and subplots and tease them out of the story like a colored thread in a loosely-knit yarn scarf?

One of the things I didn’t like was the cover art – or rather the back cover art; Reader’s Digest may have been the last magazine to put table of contents on its cover. (That was the standard for Serious Journals in the teens and 20s.)  The back was usually banal sub-Rockwell, and I say that as someone who likes Norman Rockwell; as a commercial illustrator, he was peerless, and many people’s objections to his work have to do with the pieties they imagine he wanted to force-feed everyone. His sin was finding the beauty in mainstream culture, and casting a calm cool approving gaze over the ordinary things ordinary people did. But the RD back covers had  cluttered busy ersatz Americana more suitable for a gas-station giveaway calendar, and  you forget the moment you see it.

As the years went on I read it less and less, but I don’t think a month ever passed without everyone in the house reading every single joke, including the ones at the end of every story.

Grandma died, and the magazine stopped coming.

The only other magazine I recall in the house was VFW, which my dad got, and which was full of stuff that made no sense to me. I remember only two things: ads for Sans-a-Belt slacks, and a retail section called “Shop with the Old Sarge,” featuring a drawing of, well, the Old Sarge. Dull stuff. But my grandparents subscribed to Life, and I loved looking through those when we went to the Farm. Must have been a long-standing habit: When going through my Mom’s photo album, I found a picture of Grandma holding  a sheaf of big mags complete with Coke ad on the back page:

 

grandmalife

 

The mags were big in those days. Life was heavy. By the time I came along Life – and it’s RC Cola / Hunt’s Catsup equivalent, Look – were stripped down for the 60s, with  the stark modern look that hasn’t aged well. An issue of Life from 1966 is a cold thing compared to its 40s and 50s forebearers. When I discovered those magazines at the public library, the world changed. They may have spoiled me – didn’t start reading magazines on my own until college, when I fell in love with The New Republic. Read it for a year, submitted a piece, and got it accepted: I’m off! I thought. And so it begins!

It didn’t, but it was nice to dream for a while.

A mild and peaceful day; uninspired, as they have been. No wind in the sails, but the current’s enough. Husbanding my strength for the State Fair, perhaps – that’ll be ten days of joy, with video after video and blog post after blog post, as I try to find something new in an event that prides itself on its unvarying character. It almost felt blasphemous to go there in June for the car show – the place was packed as if the real fair was underway, and it somehow undercut the pleasure you feel when you walk through the gates after a year to find Brigadoon intact.

Went to the beach with the kids in the afternoon, but that’ll be something for the Strib blog. Later today, here: Out of Context Ad Challenge returns, around 11! And I should bestir myself to post the Black and White World: Sci-Fi addition. Didn’t yesterday. As I said, slack sails.

 

68 Responses to Wednesday, August 19

  1. *Di* says:

    I, too, enjoyed RD proudly for years. Then it became “uncool” in my tiny world. But I continued to read on the sly (what a rebel, eh). I will always remember it as the magazine of waiting rooms everywhere.

  2. PersonFromPorlock says:

    Hpoulter: I’d like to read Young Mr Lileks’ article in TNR (probably thundering against Reagan)….

    Somehow, I doubt ‘thundering’. ‘Eructing’, possibly, but even raw talent like Our James’s can only go so far in overcoming youth.

  3. The SHWAMY says:

    Nautical references aplenty!
    According to Google define (probably the worst dictionary in all of human history): Husbanding = “Handling non cargo related operations of a vessel as instructed by the master, owner or charterer” -or- “conserved; used economically”.
    Had to look that one up. Nice work James!

  4. D Palmer says:

    My family had the RD subscription (and a shelf full of Condensed Books) as well as the equally ubiquitous National Geographic.

    Growing up I read both faithfully. RD lost it’s hold on me in the early 80′s. I still pick up an NG now and then.

  5. Capt_57 says:

    I used to enjoy Reader’s Digest, but it really plunged in (it’s usual) quality somewhere between 5 and 10 years ago. The final straw came when they included a joke about the Crucifixion in the “Laughter: Best Medicine” page.

    Was the joke that offensive? Not if you heard it from a friend in a bar. But in the pages of Readers Digest? Completely tasteless…

  6. Kev says:

    I once wrote that Reader’s Digest contained the first practical application of Nanotechnology – no matter where you put the magazine, tiny mites embedded in the cover would pick it up and move it to the top of the toilet tank.

    I still subscribe to RD. Almost quit a few years ago, when I was about three months behind, until one day, when the thought hit me: This fits really well in the bathroom! Started reading it whenever I was in there, and before too long, I was caught up. I have no idea why I’d never thought of that before…

  7. Mxymaster says:

    I interviewed there a couple of years ago; didn’t get the job. This is what happens when you waste Mxymaster’s time! Mwah ah ah!

    (And a waste of time it was; I think it was just a mercy interview because I had a friend working there.)

  8. Jimmy H says:

    About 15 years ago when I would visit my parents house I would always grab the RD and read most everything in it. I haven’t paid much attention to the magazine in the last 10 years. I have since seen it on the news rack and what people in this forum are saying about the current RD is no surprise to me. Unfortunately, the era of general interest magazines, as well as general interest everything else is in the past. I used to enjoy the artwork on the back of the Digest as it was a showcase of the work of commercial illustrators of the day. I was disappointed in the early 80′s when they replaced this art with “high brow” fine art. The back of the RD was the last vestige of the golden age of illustration.

  9. Paul says:

    It is no surprise. It seems like there wre three strikes against it: fewer magazines for source material, their prime demographic (apparently from these comments it was grandparents or WW2 vets) aging, and – most obviously – the contempt the editors had for the average reader. I took a peak at one while in the Safeway checkout line and thought that they’d shrunk a clone of the Enquirer and Redbook down to a mini-me size. It simply wasn’t the same magazine at all.

    Sad. two of the mainstays of the checkout stand in my youth – RD and TV Guide – are gone. I have the New Fall Shows volumes from most of the 70s to the 90s somewhere in the basement.

  10. Chris says:

    Jim, I love that photo of your grandparents. It reminds me of a few old photos of my grandparents. Salt of the earth, tough as nails Americans right there.

  11. Whoever said it had turned into a woman’s magazine absolutely nailed it. It’s funny, my sister gave RD gift subscriptions to me and our brother (and possibly our other brother) and when we were all together a few weeks ago, brother blushingly informed sis that she needn’t renew the sub for him–he just didn’t enjoy it all that much. Like a lot of others, I joyfully discovered vast stashes of RD and National Geographic at our house, and that of our aunt and uncle, and read as many as I could. There’s just no substance to it anymore; it’s turned into what I used to sniffily dismiss as a housewife’s mag, all chicken recipes and cancer scares. They still sell volumes of condensed books even though they don’t appear in the magazine anymore, and even the books they choose to squish nowadays seem terribly lacking in any sort of substance, or maybe it’s just that they haven’t yet enjoyed the sort of respectability a lot of books gain with time.

  12. [...] Nast, home of Vanity Fair and numerous other magazines, and James Lileks condensed the news of Reader’s Digest declaring Chapter 11. (”Or, as the final documents read after their editors finished with them, Chapter 5″, [...]

  13. jeff says:

    I read a similar article about RD somewhere else recently. Their point was that the magazine used to be published and edited by real people. Now it seems to be staffed by new yorkers who are putting out their version of what they think middle america is interested in.

  14. Lulu says:

    What I’m struck by is the fact that people apparently used to actually read and care about things having nothing to do with diets, makeovers, fashion, or celebrities. Did Americans actually used to read about science, religion, and other nations’ histories and cultures? I’d have to see it to believe it.

  15. Denis C. says:

    The death of one “condenser” was announced in the NYT on june 11 2008. “John S. Zinsser Jr., 84, Book Popularizer”

    “He believed ardently in the Digest’s populist mission of making well-written books with strong stories and interesting characters available to people who might not otherwise be readers,” Stephen Zinsser said of his father. [...]

    Stephen Zinsser [...] recalls sitting beside his father during a Metropolitan Opera performance of Richard Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier,” with its talky libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

    “I said, ‘You look worried,’ and he said: ‘It’s good. But it needs cutting.’ ”

  16. Mike Gebert says:

    What amazes me is looking at the list of magazines they were drawing stuff from. Are there still Kiwanis and Rotary and American Legion magazines, printing things worth reading? What a different universe that was.

  17. Fred says:

    I remember a big stir a good many years back when the folks at the Reader’s Digest Condensed books division announced that they had a condensed version of the Bible.

    Oh what a hornet’s nest that stirred up. I was actually kind of interested but the howls of outrage were so loud I don’t think it was ever actually published.

    I too have fond memories of the ‘old RD’ but am not surprised to see it going. I recall some predictions along those lines a few years back when the rot was becoming more and more obvious. Too bad, I always had hopes of experiencing some event that would allow me to make a humorous submission to “Humor in Uniform” or “Life in these United States” and get a nice check…

  18. [...] the seam of other magazines’ content has become more difficult. Look at the magazine names on that 1941 contents page: American Mercury. Collier’s. Liberty. Cosmopolitan. Saturday Review of Literature. Even [...]

Looking for something?

Use the form below to search the site:


Still not finding what you're looking for? Drop a comment on a post or contact us so we can take care of it!