There are so many things to dislike about
Reader's Digest, the world's most widely read magazine ("Over 27 million copies in 19 languages bought monthly"), that one feels lazy and churlish even to begin to point them out. But picking this magazine up continues to feel so much like spiraling into an alternative universe -- a condescending never-never land of defensive optimism, soggy "wit," scary euphemism and bedrock conservatism (in the new issue, Terry Eastland warbles about "Ending Affirmative Action") -- that it makes you want to string garlic around your neck. Yet it's hard to deny the creepy fascination that Reader's Digest exerts -- or the happy fact that it's an ideal size to fling across the doctor's waiting room at pesky kids.
Readers who have instinctively disliked
Reader's Digest will have their worst suspicions confirmed in American Dreamers, a new book from former Digest managing editor Peter Canning. Among other things, Canning details how, in the 1940s and 50s, the State Department and CIA fed content to the Digest and helped its international editions thrive. He also notes the magazine's numerous pro-Vietnam War editorials, and the way Nixon speeches found their way into the magazine under the byline "The Editors." Further, Canning dishes a good deal of dirt about founders Dewitt and Lila Wallace's odd sex lives, and he digs into the story behind the sex discrimination suit filed against the Digest in 1976, among the largest ever, in which 2,600 female employees were awarded more than $1.5 million.
Having said all that,
American Dreamers is no hatchet job. Canning expertly details the Wallace's early lives, their struggles to found the magazine in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, and how generously they treated their employees -- paying huge salaries (often more than $100,000 even in the 1940s) and giving extraordinary sums to charity. The Wallace's goal for the magazine was a noble one, to provide articles of "lasting interest" to people who often didn't read much else. And it's hard to disagree with Canning's assertion that, while sophisticates often mocked the Digest's simplicity, "clarity is not an unsophisticated goal."
As balanced as his book is, Canning isn't an especially compelling writer, and the book's second half gets bogged down in a far too detailed account of how greedy managers, in the wake of the Wallace's deaths, slashed budgets and damaged the magazine's quality. No matter. As the
Wall Street Journal once put it, the Digest remains "the top publishing success since the Bible." -- Salon
At once a touching human drama, a gripping tale of business skullduggery and a lucid examination of changing American mores over three quarters of a century, this is an enthralling book that succeeds in transforming its apparently homely subject into something vividly emblematic. Canning, whose first book (amazingly) this is, was a
Reader's Digest managing editor for 25 years until he resigned in 1987 as the magazine was beginning what turned out to be a long and still-continuing decline. He therefore enjoyed extraordinary access to staffers from various periods, understood the odd Digest ethos and was privy to many of the machinations that disfigured its last decade. It helps that he also writes cleanly and often dramatically, able to clarify complex legal and financial issues. His story is essentially in two parts: first, the saga of the two idealistic Midwesterners, DeWitt and Lila Wallace, who combined to create, out of an idea scorned by other publishers, a magazine empire that embraced the globe, with a circulation at its height of more than 20 million, and a mailing list many times as large. For their first 50 years, as WWII helped it expand internationally, Digest sales leaped year by year; then, during the Cold War years, the magazine began to become a political football. The conservative Wallaces had carelessly let it be used by the CIA and the FBI, and when Ed Thompson, a more liberal editor, tried to turn the magazine into a real force for truth, the knives were out in Washington. At the same time, as the founders began to fail, with no heirs to take on their vast fortune, avaricious eyes were cast on it, notably those of Laurence Rockefeller, who, ostensibly to help with taxes, began to siphon off stock worth millions into his chosen charities. The end for both Wallaces was pitiful: awkward but upright Wally, who never wanted to take ads and hated anything underhand (such as the current Digest Sweepstakes), when he lay dying and alone in his vast mansion, was actually carted off to a hospital by a faithful chauffeur. Narcissistic, charming Lila wasted away, her death eagerly awaited by the lawyers and business types poised to take the business in their own directions, in the process cheating many faithful, longtime staffers who had hoped always to prosper, as the Wallaces had promised they would. Rockefeller today still pours millions into causes the Wallaces cared nothing for, while those they did cherish are largely neglected. George Grune, chair from 1984 to 1994 and now a retired multimillionaire, presided over a degradation of the operation into a cynical business far from its founders' hopes. It is a sad and bitter story, magnificently told, with a full sense of its implications for contemporary, "bottom line" America. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"A story that ought to be told," states Canning, a managing editor of
Reader's Digest for 25 years, in his engrossing account of DeWitt and Lila Wallace, founders of Reader's Digest, one of the world's most widely circulated magazines in its heyday. Canning bases his study mostly on memories and interviews, covering a lengthy span from 1889 to the present. The story starts happily with a young couple who have a vision to inform people by condensing the best articles from magazines. They develop a successful publishing empire in which employees are treated like family. With no children or close relatives, the truly philanthropic Wallaces elect to give to charities quietly and anonymously. Their wealth attracts greedy outsiders, and insiders as well, who manipulate, exploit, and play upon the couple's innocence. Ultimately, the aged pair is left alone and malnourished. Canning's work is more sympathetic to the Wallaces than John Heidenry's Theirs Was the Kingdom (LJ 1/93), which is a less condensed critique of the Wallaces but just as intriguing. Highly recommended for general collections.-Bellinda Wise, Nassau Community Coll. Lib., Garden City, N.Y.
A former RD managing editor traces the rise and fall of the service magazine that became America's social mirror and later a rich orphan for profiteers.
Wisely, Canning centers this story on the magazine's founders: Lila Acheson and DeWitt Wallace. As young adults, each followed idealistic paths: she doing social mission work, he aiming to publish a magazine that would get at "the nub of things"
The Reader's Digest. Months after their marriage in 1921, they published the first issue; 15 years later, despite the Depression, they reached nearly two million households. Yet chinks in the armor appeared. WW II brought a new relationship with US intelligence that would continue for decades and affect articles and even editors. By the late 1930s, the marriage eroded; there were never to be natural children (a result of his WW I wound), but arguments over their "child" RD abounded. Still, circulation and an empire of magazine, sweepstakes, and condensed books grew. Not until the Wallaces' age necessitated the formation of a group of directors did the essential mission of the magazine fall. Philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller, who had pet plans for the Wallace money, salesmen-executives who felt marketing RD was like selling any product, and lawyer Barney McHenry, who sought control, comprised the team that funneled two-thirds of Wallace funds ( billion) to largely non-Wallace purposes. Under them and their hires, tens of hundreds of RD workers were fired, forced to sell stock, or denied pensions. Symbolically, the ashes of the deceased Wallace (d. 1981) and Lila (d. 1984) were dumped unceremoniously, not dusted over their rose garden, as they had desired.
Insider that he is, Canning reports the
RD demise with anger, sadness, and contempt, which, supported with diligent research and strong storytelling (the RD way), makes for heartfelt and believable reading.