When I look back over the years, some of the most memorable gifts that my brother and I have received were the annual subscriptions to Readers Digest. These were gifts from our uncle Vijumam and they extended for probably a period of 5 years in the mid to late eighties. Vijumam was a voracious reader. Besides buying novels, he also subscribed to Time and Readers Digest. He was also a very generous uncle!
Each month, the Digest would arrive in the mail. We ripped off the enclosing sleeve that bore our address to pore over the list of articles. Readers Digest was different from other magazines. The cover had the table of contents so to speak – names of articles along with the page number while the back cover had an illustration, usually associated with the main article or the season. I followed a specific sequence when it came to reading the articles. First to be read was “Laughter, the best medicine”. This was a page of jokes. Tasteful and refined, of course, after all this was the Digest! Next up was “Humor in Uniform”. This page was dedicated to humor in the armed forces. These were usually humorous incidents that transpired on bases. After that, it was “Life’s like that”. Short real-life incidents, usually humorous, sent in by readers. I would then move over to an article that caught my interest. Speaking of jokes, there is a reference to Readers Digest in the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond”. Ray’s father, Frank (played by Peter Boyle) fancies himself as a writer after his joke gets published in Readers Digest. He then walks around with a pencil and notebook ready to jot down any incident much to the irritation of his family.
Coming back to the Digest, the articles varied substantially and reflected the events of that time. Stories of survival after plane crashes, escapes from communist countries, courageous and inspiring stories from wars or articles on medical advances. At a time when we did not have a TV at home and libraries were few and far in between, the Readers Digest carved a niche for itself. Its articles spanned a variety of topics and there was something in it for everyone. It was educational as well as entertaining.
Even prior to receiving the gift subscriptions, we had a fairly extensive collection at home. We usually bought second-hand Digests on the sidewalk in Kings Circle in Bombay. While these were mainly Indian editions, we had a few American editions from the 1950s and 1960s. The ones from the 1950s had always been at home from as far back as I can remember. My brother remembers them as a gift from my father’s uncle in 1972. The 1960s editions were picked up by my brother from a second-hand bookstore in Seshadripuram in Bangalore. The covers were perhaps glossy at one point in time but had now faded.
These digests hold special memories for me. When I had nothing to read, I would turn to them and find an odd article here or there that I had missed reading. There were some favorites that I reread once in a while. Being a complete foodie, I also gazed longingly at pictures of ham, baked turkeys and fried chicken. Even cornflakes looked exotic! My introduction to a “Submarine Sandwich” came via a two-page spread of the cross-section of a sandwich with labeled arrows listing the various ingredients and condiments. When I ate my first sub in 1992, I was associating new tastes to a visual that I had pored over and almost memorized!
There were long-running themes across the years. The late forties focussed on WW2 and Nazi atrocities. The 1950s featured stories on Communism and the Cold War. While not overtly religious, there were stories of Christmas and miracles and there was an underlying Christian theme in some of the articles. The Digest was definitely conservative and anti-communist when I come to think of it now. When I mentioned the sequence in which I read the articles, I neglected to mention the “Condensed” story or article in each edition. These were usually abridged versions of books. As a young boy, they were perfect introductions to books such as “Freedom at Midnight”, “The Killing Fields” and “The Grapes of Wrath”. I still remember stories such as “Our Miss Rosie” – a story of a white woman’s kindness towards two African-American sisters in the 1950s as well as “No Man Stands Alone” – an inspiring story about the boxer Barney Ross and his recovery from addiction.
The abridged stories also featured in the “Condensed Volumes” that were published annually. These were collections of usually 4 abridged novels. These made great summer reading. These condensed books were my introduction to authors such as A.J. Cronin, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck and Fredrick Forsyth. I went on to read the unabridged versions later. I used to borrow these from relatives and friends when I was in India. While studying at Clemson, I bought a bunch of these volumes at a second-hand bookstore and they accompanied me on my various moves until I donated them reluctantly when I relocated to Massachusetts.
In addition to the Condensed Books, Readers Digest also came up with various other collections. These themed collections encompassed various topics such as cookery, gardening and home projects. A couple of volumes on World War II, replete with black and white photographs, were prized possessions when I was growing up. They are lying somewhere at home in Bangalore, packed in a box, in the loft perhaps. An occasional issue would feature ads for music collections curated by Readers Digest. These had expansive titles such as “Popular Music That Will Live Forever” and “Music of the Masters” I ended up buying a couple of these collections at Thrift Stores in South Florida. There were also anniversary editions that featured popular articles over the years. My brother saved the Indian 50th-anniversary edition for me, while I was able to pick up the US 40th-anniversary edition at a thrift store in Florida.
Speaking of thrift stores, the ones in South Florida were particularly interesting. They usually included the donated or disposed of assets of retirees so it was common to find old books, readers digests and LP records at throwaway prices. The Readers Digests from that era no doubt reflected the social mores of that time but will be viewed as politically incorrect today. African-Americans were referred to as “Negroes” and articles such as “How to Talk to a Husband” would no doubt shut the Digest for good if they were to be published today!
When I left India, my brother and I had amassed a pretty large collection of Readers Digests. They had a practical benefit for me as I prepared for my GRE. The vocabulary section tested for some words that were not in common usage in India. Each issue of the digest featured a section called “Word Power”. This comprised of 20 words each with multiple choices. one of which was the correct meaning of the word. Perusing these articles helped me build my vocabulary. In addition to these, there were features called “Points to Ponder” and “Quotable Quotes” which provided some food for thought.
I subscribed to Readers Digest in the 1990s out of a sense of nostalgia but I found that it had lost its charm. It was now competing with other magazines and more importantly, the internet. Each edition sported lists such as “10 Health Myths” or “5 Secrets to Happiness”. It seemed as if even the Digest was foregoing its insightful articles in favor of short easy to read articles. I stopped my subscription but am still partial to the old editions with their quaint illustrations and advertisements featuring products such as Brylcreem, Colgate Dental Cream and Air India! Don’t tell my wife, but I think its time for me to bid on some of those old issues on eBay!