"From our point of view people are more alike than different," he says. "Everyone likes to laugh, wants to be a better husband or wife, wants to be entertained, to be informed, enriched, even inspired. The magazine editors do that through great narrative, tightly condensed to get the essence of the story. Essentially Reader's Digest magazine tells stories and they're the best storytellers in the world."
In fact, if you hold a Digest from the '50s next to the most recent issue you won't find much difference in the types of articles offered. The basic features that have characterized its gentle approach are still there: Humor in Uniform, Laughter Is the Best Medicine, Towards More Picturesque Speech, The Most Unforgettable Character.
True, there is more color, more illustrations and even photographs. But change isn't something they take lightly in Pleasantville. A few years ago they changed the typeface, but the outcry from readers was so negative they quickly changed it back. "That shouldn't surprise you," says Mr. Lowder. "They said, 'You'retampering with my favorite magazine.' "
Still, says Mr. Heidenry, the Digest has a blind side. "It persists in a right wing ideology," he says, "and they don't print two sides to a question. It was the perfect exemplar of the monolithic conformist Eisenhower '50s, it got Nixon elected and became the mouthpiece of the silent majority and it was the perfect editorial embodiment of Reagan's political philosophy in the '80s."
Because of that, he says, the Digest has yet to achieve true editorial greatness. "It's a simplistic magazine. They don't put in any complicated articles. It has an attitude of gently paddling down the river of life."
But that's also what makes it appealing, says Professor Davidson at Duke.
"The Digest gives you a sense that you have a handle on the whole world of knowledge without having to read the whole book," she says. "It's sort of a very soothing way of saying the world is going too fast but at least I can get a handle on it. It gives you a little bit of control."
The founder was a study of contradictions
He was the kind of boss who would throw a lavish party for his employees, then hide in the back seat of his guests' cars, eavesdropping for critical remarks as they drove home.
He insisted that Reader's Digest, the magazine he founded in 1922, espouse family values, even though he cheated on his wife openly, conducting affairs with the wife of his best friend and with his wife's favorite niece.
He had a temper, and supposedly once bludgeoned two cocker spaniels to death with a chain. Yet he would regularly put out feed for wild deer, and once rescinded the company's parking policy that gave editors the best spots, because a lowly employee had to walk too far to his car.
He was Dewitt Wallace, the son of a minister, who with his wife, Lila, the daughter of a minister, ruled for six decades over a multibillion-dollar publishing empire that sprang from a simple notion of appealing to as many readers as possible with condensed articles of lasting interest. (Wounded in World War I, he grew impatient at the length of magazine articles he read while recuperating.)
During the Wallace's lifetime and beyond, they gave money to charities in stunning quantity -- even though their biographer, John Heidenry, in his recent book "Theirs was the Kingdom," calls Dewitt Wallace "the most famous unknown man of his time."
And yet, says Mr. Heidenry, Wallace was, in spite of his obvious flaws "a man evincing a genuine streak of nobility and largeness of spirit." He was also "the great Garbo of publishing, assiduously avoiding publicity," he says."He was inexplicably lonely."
When he died in 1981 (Mrs. Wallace died in 1984) the New York Times said that he had helped forge America's self-image.
"That self-image was also created in conjunction with people who were there at the creation of the original mass media," says Mr. Heidenry. "That included movies, radio and magazines and the club was limited to 5 or 6 members. Henry Luce, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn. Dewitt Wallace was one of them."