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So hard to digest

Reader’s Digest was like wholesome chicken broth for the entire family, with sane advice for first-time mothers and tall tales of second chances. Preeti Singh writes.

india Updated: Aug 27, 2009 22:21 IST
Preeti Singh

It tempted you to take a sneak peak between the covers. It was small and compact enough to fold comfortably and snuggle with for a quick giggle before drifting off to sleep. It was an adult past-time you were allowed to share and, for as long as I can remember, there was always one lying around the house somewhere to beat the blues.

As the Reader’s Digest turns another page to add a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to its 87-year-old existence, I can’t help but think that we might turn out to be the last generation with any memories of that pocket-sized magazine, having spent lazy childhood afternoons drowsily browsing faraway tales of triumph and loss; of gaining 20 pounds and graciously losing face — ‘All in a day’s work’.

I remember pitting my vocabulary against ‘Word Power’; smiling at the exploits of curmudgeonly matrons, cutesy antics of precocious brats and the flirtations of fresh-faced co-eds in ‘Life’s like that’ or ‘College rags’ and empathising with floundering young officers bested by cunningly witty generals in ‘Humour in uniform’. Real people, real stories: they seemed to egg you on to take life in its stride. ‘Well, it happened to me, no big deal!’ Embarrassment was cool; you could trade it for page space. At other times, the tragic stories of love and loss, or loss of life and limb, made you feel hopelessly inadequate for not having survived your very own life-altering trial by fire.

All in all, it was like wholesome chicken broth for the entire family, with sane advice for first-time mothers and tall tales of second chances. It could help you map out the highway to health or the road to marital bliss, while telling you how to save for that perfect getaway or dream home by dispensing quick-fix tricks to replace that unpredictable and pricy plumber. What’s more, each gut-wrenching tale left enough space for a rip-roaring gag at the bottom of the page.

And now a magazine — no, an institution — that taught us how to go out there and battle that stubborn plaque or the office bully, is fighting for its own survival. Its publisher, the Reader’s Digest Association, has filed for pre-packaged bankruptcy in the US to reduce part of its $1.6 billion in debt and strengthen finances. For now, it has been granted court approval to dip into a $150 million loan. But all is not well in Pleasantville. The good news is that we might not have to say goodbye to it just yet.

Which is just as well, for even though I stopped reading it a few years ago, opting instead for its more glossy or academic cousins, it’s difficult to imagine my mom’s bedside table without one.