Editor’s Note: Mahlon’s column brought back memories! Until he read me his column yesterday I hadn’t thought about Readers Digest in years, quite a fall from grace for a magazine that once occupied a more important place in my life. My Mom subscribed to RD and I loved reading it when I was a kid. Maybe I was a nerdy teenage boy for enjoying it, but hearing that Mahlon, too, enjoyed the magazine at that age makes me feel less nerdy). When it arrived in the mail it was so packed with good articles that it could keep me occupied for hours. I think everyone had/has their own system for reading it. As a budding writer, I often read the “Quotable Quotes” section first and then maybe “Points to Ponder” before going for the meatier articles. My Mom tilted first towards the more sensational “Drama in Real Life” type pieces. Good magazine, RD was! What happened to it? Do any of our readers still subscribe to it? The internet came along and vacuumed away a lot of the magazine’s raison de etre. So I think I just sort of lost interest and then RD did what so many other print publications have done in reaction to the internet, they watered their product down. Instead of making the magazine meatier and more substantive it became more fluff and thinner. So, I must confess, I haven’t picked up an RD in probably 10 or 15 years. But, wow, it was once such a favorite…..Now, onto Mahlon….Kevin
BY MAHLON MILLER
My family was a family of bookworms. We read everything we got our hands on much to the chagrin of my Dad who never read for pleasure. I was 15 when my Mom came home one day with two banana boxes full of old Readers Digests. She paid $1 per box for them at a consignment sale. Over the next few years if she would have charged us a nickel each time we quoted something from them she would have had a profit that would have made the finance gurus take notice.
In looking back I think the arrival of Readers Digest was a turning point in my world. There were a few issues from the 1940s, perhaps two dozen from the 1950s, and nearly every one from 1960 to 1973. I learned about wildlife and waterfalls and Bob Hope. About shoes and sleep patterns and volcanoes. About pineapple farming and dandruff shampoo and campus riots. And lots and lots of things about international politics, the cold war, the KGB, Vietnam and more. These boxes contained information on anything in the world plus a long book section on the Apollo 11 flight which was out of this world.
Our conversations back then were always laced with clichés, worn out phrases we picked out and modified to fit our situation. Now with all these Readers Digests we had an inexhaustible supply of new quotes. Most were used a couple of days or weeks and then they faded but one that stuck with us was “beauty is everywhere, art will endure.” If Mom made comments about weeds growing rampant in the strawberry patch or how badly the barn needed painting we would butt in with: “Oh, just leave it as it is, beauty is everywhere, art will endure.” The phrase was even used at the supper table if someone complained that the green beans were disgusting or the bread was crumbly.
My sister and I still use it in conversation sometimes. I think for me it stuck partly because I was just learning that art is more than crayons, glue sticks, and construction paper. And beauty describes more than mountains, horses, and white-tailed deer. Art can be anything. I tell my students that if concentration and practice can improve it, it is art. Riding a bike and dribbling a basketball and tying your shoe and writing an essay or shooting clay pigeons, all of it is art.
I think that concept that everything is art can be liberating. We used to husk corn by hand when I was growing up. Often we had 20 to 30 acres to husk and of course we got extremely tired of the job a long time before it was done. One day some non-Amish friends were visiting and wanted to help us in the cornfields. I was husking at my usual unenthused 15-year-old speed but I noticed that it was still much smoother and twice as fast as our adult visitors. I thought of our quote and decided that husking corn is an art and proper form is a thing of beauty. And from that realization forward it was fun. Perfecting my speed and form became a challenge and becoming faster and smoother became a reward. I was almost sorry when we got done.
Soon after my discovery of corn husking art, I was at the breakfast table and put too much milk on my oatmeal and it soon had a consistency that could have been sucked through a straw. I was slurping up level spoonfuls of liquid and watching my little sister who was just starting to eat on her own and as she dumped her bites on her bib time and again. I thought of our quote and decided that using silverware is an art and proper form is a thing of beauty.
The next couple of mornings my brother and I poured extra milk in our cereal and lifted our spoon technique to the next level then we got carried away with a loudest and longest slurp contest, which was our undoing. Mom told us to look for beauty elsewhere.
As time goes on I see more and more truth in that quote.
It seems to me that beauty is not beauty unless it has a function. A bell is not a being a bell unless somebody rings it. A song is not being a song unless somebody sings it. The ringing and the singing are art forms and beauty depends upon and is the result of art.
Even the most mundane thing in the world is beautiful if it is a product of art. As I told my seventh graders last year picking your nose is just plain gross but if you can develop an impressive technique that is a thing of beauty.
Mahlon Miller, 31, is an Amish school-teacher and farmer in rural northern Indiana.