[Viewpoint] An inspiration to readers everywhere

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[Viewpoint] An inspiration to readers everywhere

It is a great surprise to hear that Reader’s Digest is on the verge of bankruptcy. Is this not the magazine loved by people around the world, which gave hope to those in despair and joy to families?

Just like Time magazine, The New Yorker and Esquire, Reader’s Digest also had a young passionate publisher, DeWitt Wallace, who was eager to fulfill the ideals of humanism. The message he sent to readers was optimism and happiness. Reader’s Digest always claimed, even during the Great Depression and the two World Wars, that the world was a great place and could be turned into an even better place to live.

DeWitt Wallace was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1889, as the son of a pastor. As a child, Wallace spent his time reading magazines in the attic of his family home. When he saw an article he liked, he quickly took out his scissors to cut it out put it in his scrapbook, and this habit later provided the foundation for the launch of Reader’s Digest. Wallace got a job at an agricultural magazine publishing company and worked hard as an editor.

One day, he had the idea to create a magazine the entire family could read, and that would be both informative and fun. This was how the plan to create Reader’s Digest, a magazine for the silent majority, started. In 1921, during Prohibition, Wallace rented the basement storage room of home brewery in Greenwich Village with Lila Acheson, who later became his wife, and hung up a sign that read “Reader’s Digest.”

The dignified and cultured pages created by Wallace soon captured the hearts of readers. When he found good articles, he wittily edited them in a concise format to make them part of his touching magazine. The virtuous dream the couple nurtured together had taken a step closer to the real world.

In the 1930s, Reader’s Digest grew into an international success with the launch of overseas editions. American soldiers deployed all over the world during World War II were avid readers of the pocket-sized magazine.

Its popularity was also high in the countries where the soldiers were stationed because of its reasonable and positive articles. Playing the role of missionary, the magazine created an image of Americans as a democratic people who respect order and have kind hearts. It was a different image from the stubborn, greedy and even cruel American seen in Hollywood films or magazines like Playboy or Penthouse.

When the story of John F. Kennedy commanding a torpedo boat during World War II was carried by Reader’s Digest, the image of Kennedy as a true hero was instilled in the minds of the readers. This article enhanced the image of the young and previously obscure Kennedy and helped him enter politics, ultimately becoming the president of the United States.

Reader’s Digest was even once called one of the world’s three most influential international organizations, along with the Catholic Church and the Communist Party. Its offices were the workplace of people’s dreams, with excellent working conditions and high salaries even with no labor union.

Wallace, who succeeded in growing the magazine he started with just $500 into a global behemoth worth billions of dollars, retired in 1973 at the age of 83.

According to a recent Reuters article, Reader’s Digest has filed for protection from bankruptcy and is planning a comeback. We are saddened to hear this news in an age when the media run rampant, instigating people with sensationalistic news.

Reader’s Digest once secured a readership of more than 130 million people in 78 countries. It was even loved by Koreans. When the Korean version came out, in the midst of the Korean War, it was published in Busan, where the people of the South sought their last refuge. I was one of those avid readers.

I hope Reader’s Digest, my lifelong inspiration in publishing, will continue to fulfill the virtuous dream of DeWitt Wallace.


*The writer is a novelist and the publisher of Dongsuh Books.

by Koh Jung-il

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