The Good: Generally simple diction, Occasionally a good article
The Bad: Generally fluffy articles/interviews, Nothing original, Surprisingly addy
The Basics: A disappointing magazine, Reader's Digest does not adequately capture the full range of American journalism or fiction.
There are some "institutions" in America which I see little point to glorifying, even when most others walk very much the "party line" on them. I'm not a fan of supermarket tabloids and the idea that Reader's Digest is both great reading and truly captures the best stories in American culture today is laughable by my accounts. Indeed, it wasn't until I was reviewing the Spanish-language version of Reader's Digest, Selecciones that I realized that I had never bothered to review Reader's Digest.
For those unfamiliar with the magazine, Reader’s Digest is a physically small 100 page magazine which reprints selections from other publications each month so readers can get what the magazine feels is the “best of” American printing. The rather inoffensive concept runs into technical problems for objectivity when one views the content of what Reader’s Digest reprints. Reader’s Digest reprints inoffensive, socially conservative articles which have an inflated sense of Americana and a narrow view of social mores and patriotism. There is a pretty strong "support the President," "support the war," "live life to the fullest," "America is on top and always will be" attitude to what is printed in Reader's Digest. The magazine does not reprint hard-hitting journalism which explores corruption, shady dealings or government inadequacies.
What readers can expect in Reader's Digest then are stories that generally make the reader feel good and stories of triumph over adversity, reinforcing the antiquated and unrealistic notions that good triumphs over evil and trust in authority are good things. The jokes are inoffensive and are the style one might expect from a kindly grandparent and the interviews are loaded with softball questions. So, for example, a recent interview of Michael J. Fox allowed Fox to plug his new book, discuss how he was bravely fighting Parkinson’s disease. The interview neglects the real struggles of day to day living for Fox and it certainly does not explore the pain and suffering of a person without Fox’s resources goes through while struggling with Parkinson’s.
Reader's Digest has capitalized in recent years on at least one major celebrity story each issue. They tend to use the cover window to feature that celebrity to sell the magazine. Otherwise, the stories tend to be filled with real-life accounts of triumph over adversity (i.e. "How I Survived At Sea After My Shipwreck" or "Raising A Child With Down's Syndrome") or fiction that mimics the same. Reader's Digest's idea of great American fiction are not the stories with complex and engaging characters, higher-level diction or real surprises. Instead, it tends to go with stories that seem more autobiographical or nostalgic, like a story set in the 1950s about a boy who takes a girl out for malts and simply enjoys holding her hand and listening to the radio.
What surprised me most about Reader's Digest these days, though, had to be the sheer volume of advertisements. Reader's Digest has a lot of ads, mostly selling "collectible jewelry" and volumes of Reader's Digest books. The advertisements are distracting, though many of them do come up between articles or as half-page ads as opposed to fully cutting into stories with full-page advertisements.
Ultimately, Reader's Digest offers little entertainment or informational value. Because all of the nonfiction is reprinted at least a month after the primary source published it, the magazine is hardly groundbreaking. Moreover, the very conservative nature of the writing is not my style; this might be safe for grandparents to read to their grandkids to put them to sleep, but it's not engaging for those in their thirties. If a digest is basically "all the stories you'd tell your friends to read if you read everything and wanted to pick out the highlights," Reader's Digest are the selections from magazines I would not be interested in reading in the first place.
For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
Playboy Women Of Starbucks
Cuisine At Home
Hemmings Classic Cars
For other book and magazine reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing by clicking here!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.