The idea for Reader's Digest first came to a young American copywriter called DeWitt Wallace while he was recovering in France from a shrapnel injury during the First World War. He spent four months poring over magazines sent from home, and it gave him an idea. Returning to the US at the end of the war, he decided to produce a new kind of monthly magazine—one that gathered together all the most interesting articles around so that people could get the best of the best reading all in one-pocket sized place. In doing so DeWitt Wallace became the world’s first search engine.
The first issue rolled of Reader’s Digest off the presses in New York in 1922. DeWitt and his wife Lila had hoped to make $5,000 from their venture, but by 1929 the magazine had 290,000 subscribers, an income of $900,000 a year and was well on the way to becoming the world’s most popular magazine.
The first UK issue was published in London in March 1938, and since then we’ve printed everything from laugh-out-loud jokes to ground-breaking articles. We published the first exposé of the dangers of smoking in 1952, and highlighted the threat of a little-known Islamic extremist called Osama bin Laden as early as 1998.
And along the way we’ve found our way into countless TV programmes and films:
“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington”, The Simpsons (1991)
Lisa reaches the final of a “Reading Digest” essay-writing competition and is sent on an all-expenses paid trip to the US Capital, where she uncovers a bribery scandal in the Senate.
“Harbinger”, Waking the Dead (BBC1, 2011).
A young boy whose mother has Münchausen syndrome collects Reader’s Digest due to the amount of time he spends in doctors’ waiting rooms.
Cigarette firm Lucky Strike seeks the advertising men’s help to counter RD’s recent article on the dangers of smoking. The episode is set in 1960, though, of course, we’d actually published “Cancer by the Carton” eight years earlier.
The narrator (Edward Norton) discovers stacks of old Annotated Reader issues (which are clearly based on RD) in the basement of his dilapidated house. He reads them obsessively.
“Listen to this. It’s an article written
by an organ in first person. ‘I am Jack’s medulla oblongata, without me Jack could not regulate his heart rate, blood pressure or breathing!’ There’s a whole series of these! ‘I am Jill’s nipples.’ ‘I am Jack’s Colon.’ ”
“I am John’s …” was a regular medical section in the magazine.
Nemo and his fishy friends seize the moment for the little clownfish to try to escape from a dental-surgery aquarium when the dentist leaves the room.
Peach: “Potty break! Potty break! He just grabbed the Reader’s Digest! We have 4.2 minutes.”
Gill: “That’s your cue, Sharkbait.”
We’ve also been mentioned in Good Morning Vietnam, Final Destination, Outnumbered, Scrooged and, even, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
And the best til last: Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954)
Stella: We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?
Jeff: Reader's Digest, April 1939.
Stella: Well, I only quote from the best.