Before the internet, there was Reader’s Digest – Steve Coronella on a milestone publication

My dentist will confirm that I’m long enough in the tooth to have witnessed three distinct Information Ages.

The first involved newspapers and television and their fleeting, often unretrievable content. If you didn’t read an article or see a news programme the first time around – in my case the latest match report in my hometown Boston Globe or live broadcasts of the US Senate’s Watergate hearings in 1973 – you were out of luck. Unless, in the former instance, you snipped out every article you could find on the Boston Bruins ice hockey team, as I did to create an impressive scrapbook devoted to their championship 1969-70 season.

The second era saw the widespread introduction of photocopiers and VCRs, which allowed readers and viewers a chance to catch up on articles or shows they’d missed due to time or scheduling constraints. Again on a personal note, I frequently used the photocopier in my local library to reproduce the latest Woody Allen or SJ Perelman piece from the New Yorker, the better to savour these master humorists over several readings at home.

Unfortunately, a VCR didn’t become a standard fixture in our house – and indeed across the US – until the early 1980s, so I was unable to archive any worthy TV broadcasts from my boyhood such as The Green Hornet – a show whose title character didn’t appeal to me nearly as much as Bruce Lee’s Kato, whom I impersonated one year in a makeshift Halloween outfit.

Today, we are in Streaming Time, when you can get instant content on any number of portable devices, meaning you no longer need to set aside a time and a place to watch an interesting documentary or peruse a mainstream print publication.

As long as you have sufficient bandwidth or an adequate data allowance (and can pony up the requisite fee), the world comes to you, at your convenience, on a multitude of digital platforms.

Of course, before photocopiers, VCRs, and the internet, there existed a prototype device, which channelled a variety of material from disparate sources into the palm of your hand.

The item in question was Reader’s Digest, which was offered on subscription (yes, our house was on their mailing list for a time) but could also be found free of charge in the waiting room of any reputable medical practitioner. Unlike technological relics such as rotary dial telephones and suitcase-size camcorders, however, Reader’s Digest is still with us. In fact, the current leadership is in the midst of celebrating a significant birthday.

In February 1922, Reader’s Digest founders Lila and Dewitt Wallace published the first edition of their iconic magazine – which consisted of 31 uplifting articles from various publications, one for each day of the month – and the couple thus became “the world’s earliest content curators”, according to the Digest’s website.

The Wallaces also foresaw the ever-diminishing attention span of the American public, presenting each article in a condensed form known – often disparagingly – as the Reader’s Digest version. It was a successful formula. By the 1940s, the Digest was America’s best-selling publication, with over one million copies in circulation.

As early as 1935, however, the Digest was publishing original investigative reporting, including a number of articles highlighting the risks of smoking. Indeed, the Digest credits that their 1952 article “Cancer by the Carton” by Roy Norr “contributed to the largest drop in cigarette consumption America had seen since the Depression”.

Likewise, the 1965 exposé “The Shame of Our Nursing Homes” by Alfred Balk brought the issue of elder neglect and abuse into the American mainstream.

My own interest in the Digest over the years was less ennobling. I usually headed straight for the “It Pays To Increase Your Word Power” feature, confident of a high score owing to my early introduction to Latin and my extensive knowledge of the Perelman backlist. Plus, I was keen to discover the work of far-flung newspaper humorists, such as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Arthur Hoppe and an emerging talent at the Miami Herald named Dave Barry.

The Digest also on occasion featured Russell Baker, whose astute Observer columns for the New York Times were unavailable to a Boston area hick like me except in my local library or from the Out of Town News outlet in Harvard Square.

This sounds ridiculous today, given the global sweep of the internet – or as HG Wells envisioned it in a series of talks and essays in 1937, “The World Brain”.

But before you dismiss Reader’s Digest as a quaint irrelevancy, take a moment to consider that the oft-derided condensed form popularised by the Digest 100 years ago might in fact have foreshadowed the 140-character medium of Twitter.

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