Robert Fulghum may have learned everything he needed to know in kindergarten, but I didn’t. Possibly because I never went to kindergarten.
But I did learn, not quite everything I needed to know, but a lot of useful and interesting stuff from Reader’s Digest.
In a household where both parents and all four daughters were avid readers, there was a lot of competition for the fat little magazine when it showed up in the mail every month. My memory is that it often had the bad timing to arrive on housecleaning days, which meant Mother would stash it somewhere until the work was done. There it sat on top of the fridge, out of sight but not out of mind, its unread jokes and stories a distracting temptation while we vacuumed and dusted. It was a strong incentive to be the first one to finish, of course—though, oddly enough, quite often the person who got to it first was Mother.
Reader’s Digest was a predictable mix of material that was mostly condensed and republished: a long excerpt from a nonfiction book, at least one story of a dramatic rescue or recovery, short pieces of insight and observation, and, of course, the jokes scattered throughout the pages like chocolate chips in the cookie.
I read the whole thing. It’s a bit surprising, all these years later, how many things I remember. (None of which I can think of right this minute, but I could call you later when they surface in my brain. Would two a.m. be convenient?)
I do recall the awfulness of one story about a girl who was about 11 or 12 (close to my own age at the time) and dying of leukemia. During her last days in the hospital, her parents told her if there was anything she wanted, they would do whatever they could to get it for her. She had just one wish: to see her brothers and sisters one last time. But hospitals then didn’t allow kids under the age of 14 to visit, and rules were rules. As I remember it, the parents didn’t even ask. The best they could do was sneak the oldest sister in for an illicit visit. The unkindness and unfairness of that sad story made me angry at the time. It still does.
As an adult, I continued to subscribe to Reader’s Digest for years. While its formula didn’t vary much, the content did evolve over the years as society changed. This was brought home to me once when I bought a box of books at a garage sale. In it was an aging little paperback of “Playboy Party Jokes.” I opened it, prepared to be suitably shocked. But the book was even older than it looked; I had already read most of the jokes in Reader’s Digest.
One of my high school teachers warned us not to use Reader’s Digest as a source for any assignments. Always go back to the full version of an article wherever it was originally published, he said, because “they chop off the ending to make room for all the jokes at the bottom of the pages.”
This was sound enough advice as far as it went, but even as a teenager I knew he was mistaken about the editing process. The Reader’s Digest editors may have made lots of cuts, but they used their red pencils more like scalpels than hatchets. It’s an example I try to follow as an editor myself. Possibly some of my current or former clients may disagree. Unfortunately, their comments had to be deleted due to lack of space.