American Dreamers

Dwight Garner reviews "American Dreamers: The Wallaces and Reader's Digest: An Insider's Story" by Peter Canning.

By Dwight Garner

Published November 13, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

There are so many things to dislike about Reader's Digest, the world's most widely read magazine ("Over 27 million copies in 19 languages bought monthly"), that one feels lazy and churlish even to begin to point them out. But picking this magazine up continues to feel so much like spiraling into an alternative universe -- a condescending never-never land of defensive optimism, soggy "wit," scary euphemism and bedrock conservatism (in the new issue, Terry Eastland warbles about "Ending Affirmative Action") -- that it makes you want to string garlic around your neck. Yet it's hard to deny the creepy fascination that Reader's Digest exerts -- or the happy fact that it's an ideal size to fling across the doctor's waiting room at pesky kids.

Readers who have instinctively disliked Reader's Digest will have their worst suspicions confirmed in "American Dreamers," a new book from former Digest managing editor Peter Canning. Among other things, Canning details how, in the 1940s and 50s, the State Department and CIA fed content to the Digest and helped its international editions thrive. He also notes the magazine's numerous pro-Vietnam War editorials, and the way Nixon speeches found their way into the magazine under the byline "The Editors." Further, Canning dishes a good deal of dirt about founders Dewitt and Lila Wallace's odd sex lives, and he digs into the story behind the sex discrimination suit filed against the Digest in 1976, among the largest ever, in which 2,600 female employees were awarded more than $1.5 million.

Having said all that, "American Dreamers" is no hatchet job. Canning expertly details the Wallace's early lives, their struggles to found the magazine in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, and how generously they treated their employees -- paying huge salaries (often more than $100,000 even in the 1940s) and giving extraordinary sums to charity. The Wallace's goal for the magazine was a noble one, to provide articles of "lasting interest" to people who often didn't read much else. And it's hard to disagree with Canning's assertion that, while sophisticates often mocked the Digest's simplicity, "clarity is not an unsophisticated goal."

As balanced as his book is, Canning isn't an especially compelling writer, and the book's second half gets bogged down in a far too detailed account of how greedy managers, in the wake of the Wallace's deaths, slashed budgets and damaged the magazine's quality. No matter. As the Wall Street Journal once put it, the Digest remains "the top publishing success since the Bible."

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

MORE FROM Dwight Garner

Related Topics ------------------------------------------