Hershey family, circa 1966. L-R: Doris, Sue, me, Henry, Linda, Daddy, Mother.

Since television was not allowed in my Mennonite home when I was growing up, magazines, newspapers, and radio were an important link to the outside world.

The magazines I read from cover to cover included The Saturday Evening Post, Boy’s Life, and Life. But these were special treats not always available. Usually, they followed some magazine drive that were standard fundraisers at school.

We always had Farm Journal, Hoard’s Dairyman, The Gospel Herald and Christian Living, which I read only when desperate.

However, we had one tried-and-true, omni-present consumer magazine friend. Can you guess which one?

Of course, it was The Reader’s Digest. I gobbled up a new copy as soon as I found it in the mailbox, and the old copies found their way to the single bathroom our family of seven shared.

“Humor in Uniform” and “Real Life Drama” were some of my favorite sections, taking me into places far outside my small, Mennonite world. I sometimes did the “Word Power” puzzles and loved to find witty quotations I could try out with my friends. In some ways, the magazine predicted the future of mass media. It valued the pithy, poignant, sound bite before that word was coined and before USA Today and Twitter carried those values to their logical conclusions.

So, when I found this essay about memoir from the online version of Reader’s Digest, I was led to a little reverie about the past, not only of my own early reading habits but of the cultural role played by this magazine. If a little Mennonite girl found a window to the world here, imagine how many other Americans did also? The stories reflected the conservative values of the founders, Lila Bell and Dewitt Wallace, but they refrained from political endorsement and had none of the shrill ideological language of today’s media.

The magazine was, and is, filled with memoir–real people’s stories with names of the authors attached. I used to pore over the page that described how anybody could become an “author” in one of the many special sections devoted to real life humor and drama. Again, the popularity of these mini-memoirs may have forecast today’s reality television and enlarged memoir section in libraries and bookstores.

The article below, from a recent issue of Reader’s Digest online, does a great job of describing some critical memoir issues, especially psychological ones, and includes quotes from Jeannette Walls and other famous memoirists. So I guess you can say that even today Reader’s Digest is enlarging my world.

You won’t be able to read the article in the bathroom, however, unless you print it out or view this post on a smart phone. Ah, the benefits of print media.

How to Write Your Memoir

By Joe Kita January 2009

Start writing your memoir now. Everyone has fascinating moments and stories to share.CLIPART.COM
Jeannette Walls had a hardscrabble youth. Nomadic, poor, often hungry, she grew up in the desert Southwest and the mountains of West Virginia. She eventually escaped her poverty and moved to New York City, where she became a successful gossip columnist. Her parents moved there too. Only, they soon found themselves homeless. One night on her way to a party, dressed in designer clothes, she saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. She lowered her head and asked the cabbie to take her home. My, how people would gossip if that were known.

“I was terrified,” says Walls. “I had this great life, a husband who loved me, a great job, a house with flush toilets, yet I felt like a fraud. I had a compulsion to write about this embarrassing stuff even though I knew I was risking everything.”

Walls made false starts on her memoir four times over 20 years, on each occasion growing so frustrated and fearful that she threw out the entire manuscript. Finally, when she was 44, The Glass Castle was published. It’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost three years, has sold more than two million copies, has been translated into 23 languages, and will soon be a movie.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned from writing this memoir is how much we all have in common,” says Walls. “So many of us think that certain things only happened to us and somehow they make us less of a person. I’m constantly urging people, especially older folks, to write about their lives. It gives you new perspective. It was hugely eye-opening for me and very cathartic. Even if the book hadn’t sold a single copy, it would still have been worth it.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Do you have any Reader’s Digest memories from childhood?  Please share!

Shirley Showalter


  1. friesengroup on July 16, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Ah yes, Mennonites and no TV … or Mennonites and yes TV … that is a memoir in itself! Reader’s Digest was a part of my childhood and is now an annual gift from my Mother to our household. We are still reading the short essays and laughing at the jokes. My grandparents subscribed to the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. I have many fond memories of reading and re-reading those stories while lying on the floor before a fan during the long, hot Nebraska summer afternoons.

    Thank you for repeating a very important idea: memoir is about creating connection, about seeing commonalities through each ones unique perspective.

    Off to the back porch to husk sweet corn for lunch…

    • shirleyhs on July 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing these memories. I think we had a few of those Condensed Books also, but I preferred reading “real” books. I never minded if books were long if their worlds and characters enchanted me. In fact, the longer the better in that case.

      But probably the real reason I read few of the RDC Books is that we just didn’t have any in our house. I was pretty much a book vacuum cleaner.

      Sweet corn right out of the boiling water and right out of the husk before that and right off the stalk before that. Add garden cucumber salad and vine-ripened tomatoes and meadow tea. The perfect summer meal.

      • friesengroup on July 16, 2011 at 6:24 pm

        While less satisfying, the RDC books were a lifesaver when we were in the tiny mid-Nebraska town of less than 600 people for two weeks each summer! I suspect this is one reason I connect with Willa Cather’s stories.

        The only thing missing from your perfect meal descriptor is cucumbers! Many things are refusing to grow due to the heat and drought in Kansas.

  2. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on July 16, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Shirley, your experiences of growing up parallel mine in so many ways, though my Mennonite childhood with no television was on a dairy farm in Illinois. However, I am 5th of 7 children, five years younger than you, and, wow, what a difference all that makes. An uncle and aunt in Virginia gave our family an annual gift subscription to Reader’s Digest and I did enjoy the humor sections and glimpses into other worlds. I did not really perceive conservative or liberal divisions in the world until the 1980s, and Readers Digest seemed to fit in with my parents’ approach to life of ignoring those differences.

    Now, here’s a question I really want to ask. My sister, Vivian Nice, went to EMC at the same time as you and Stuart. Do you have any memories of her life, or of her death in 1969?

    • shirleyhs on July 16, 2011 at 9:56 pm

      Oh my, Dolores, yes indeed I remember Vivian. Unfortunately, I remember her death more than anything else. I did not know her well, but we had one or two classes together. I felt so sad that she was in despair and none of us seemed to know it. I can only imagine how devastating the loss was to your family.

      Please do stay connected to this blog. Perhaps our stories can be part of the larger web of healing for ourselves and others.

      • Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on July 18, 2011 at 5:43 pm

        I get jitters knowing you knew my sister in her last days.
        Thank you for the invitation to stay connected.
        I’m grinning because I already am connected, and I read everything, buy books you suggest and click on the links….

  3. Shirley B yoder on July 17, 2011 at 12:41 am

    Shirley, I think we had four magazines in my home when I was growing up in south-eastern Virginia. They were Readers Digest for all of us; Field and Stream was for Daddy, but I remember reading from them the “how -to escape-a-charging-bear'” type story occasionally, and for Mother there was Southern Living and Ideals Magazine, a bucolic photo and poetry magazine.

    Local furniture historian Betsy Eggleston, says that women focused magazines were largely responsible for the changes in style of American homes as well as for how they were furnished. They showed middle class women how to decorate, color coordinate, plant attractive flower beds, and they topped it all off with how to whip up a beautiful salad and pie for supper.

    When I married in 1967 Mother began giving me Southern Living magazine subscriptions for birthdays or Christmas presents. She continued this practice for many year. Mother died in the month of January at the age of 92, and on my February birthday a month later, I opened my mailbox to find a card from Southern Living wishing me a happy birthday from my mother and another year subscription.

    • shirleyhs on July 17, 2011 at 1:01 am

      Shirley, welcome to the comments section. So glad to find you here. Wow, your story about your mother touched my heart. It seems the magazine choices of the 1950’s and 60’s tell us a lot about our families, don’t they? More than I even realized when I posted this simple memory.

  4. Marilyn Nolt on July 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    Remember Pennsylvania Farmer?

    • Shirley B yoder on July 20, 2011 at 2:41 am

      When this Virginia girl started dating a Pennsylvania guy, I noticed the magazines were different in his home. Pennsylvania Farmer magazines were stashed in the hand made wooden magazine rack beside his father’s olive green plastic covered chair. There were always several months worth of dog-eared copies available for my reading pleasure.
      Shirley Yoder.

  5. shirleyhs on July 17, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    I do now, Marilyn. Thanks for bringing it back to mind. I wonder if it’s still published?

    i’m afraid I classified it along with Hoard’s Dairyman. 🙂

  6. shirleyhs on July 18, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    @Doloris, thanks for letting me know how connected you are. Many blessings.

  7. shirleyhs on July 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    My friend Lanie Tankard sent the announcement from Publisher’s Weekly that Reader’s Digest is coming out with a new book called Life: The Reader’s Digest Version. If you want to explore the Table of Contents and some excerpts, see below. Imagine having all the wisdom of your childhood bound up between two covers. 🙂


  8. […] Reader’s Digest–A Fond Memory–And Now, a Memoir Source … […]

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