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Not only does this book give us a fascinating insight into the world of the best-selling magazine and its creators DeWitt and Lila Wallace but it also helps us to understand the crucial role the fine art of editing played in the Digest's astonishing success of the last century.
Schreiner is able to give us an insider's viewpoint because he worked as an editor of the magazine for many years. This is not a muck-raking book, though — far from it. Instead Schreiner takes as objective a look at the Digest as is possible given his insider status.
Written in an engaging style and packed with interesting anecdotes, this book elaborates on the techniques used by DeWitt Wallace and the Digest staff to ensure that the Reader's Digest was "without peer".
The chapter that journalists and media students will find highly instructive — I know I did — is titled "Along Murderer's Row" (from a writer's perspective, perhaps, a very apt title). Schreiner begins the chapter with a quote from Norman Cousins, editor of Saturday Review and "an astute observer of the American magazine scene":
"The secret of the Reader's Digest is editing. I tell my audiences ... that the Reader's Digest is the best edited magazine in America. Wally [DeWitt Wallace] himself is the best pencil man, and the result of his technique is clarity — the words lift right off the page into your mind."
Then Schreiner gets down to brass tacks:
"[Each] Digest article receives the benefit of a total of twenty to thirty man hours of attention, divided among some five different editors; by contrast, I had cut a whole book for [my previous magazine] Parade on [a] fifty-five-minute train ride. When I took my guilt feelings over being allowed, even pressed, to use so much time on a single job to my straw boss at the Digest, he soothed me with these words: 'Here we take time to polish the diamond.' "
Schreiner admits it is difficult to describe just how to turn the rough stone of an original article or a reprint into a Digest gem. There are no manuals on the art of digesting, he writes. "Newcomers to the Digest staff are not even given verbal instructions or told, for example, what to take out of an article or how to reorder its sequence to make it move more swiftly and logically or what other things might be done to improve it. You learn by observing what seasoned editors do, by your own trial and error."
So true. Unless you're supremely talented (and very few of us are), you can only become a good journalist by learning on the job and making (but not repeating) your own mistakes, presuming you have first been taught the fundamentals at a good J-School.
Samuel Schreiner's book should be on the bookshelf of every aspiring journalist not simply because it is about a best-selling magazine but because the writing is top-notch and it offers so many insights into the practice of print journalism.
A Priest for the Digest I
Giant With a Soul
A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
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