A Timeless Lesson From John Caples (Part I)

Did you know that Reader’s Digest used to be the world’s largest-circulated publication?

I just learned that on p. 104 of Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples.

And it turns out, according to Wikipedia, RD held the distinction of America’s Most Circulated  straight up to 2009.

I haven’t picked the old gal up in a while. The laundromat I used to go to when I was living on eastern Long Island usually had some tattered copies in a dirty plastic magazine holder next to the detergent vending machine.

I’d turn to the puzzle page and usually find them all 1/3 to 1/2 completed in pen.

The articles I remember  were  mostly about diets and health hacks… rounded out by some random-seeming travel, personal finance, and general “better living” tips.  They were all very short, many lists–sort of like webpages on paper.

I’m on their website now  trying to go through a slideshow about apple cider vinegar and I’m getting absolutely massacred with pop-ups. 

But it used to be such a pillar of quality and success that a top ad man like Caples used its articles as inspiration for how to communicate effectively.

Ever the data-amasser, Caples studied many issues and found six fundamental ways that heyday Readers’ Digest articles began.

They’re all great and I want to discuss all of them, so I won’t dare try to stuff them all in one post. Today the spotlight is on the Interrupting Ideawhich is:

“(A) startling statement or a novel twist that breaks through the boredom barrier that often exists in the mind of the reader.”

And among the examples he pulls is this brilliant one:

“While we humans think that penguins look and act like people, there’s sobering evidence that they think of us as just big penguins.”

My boredom barrier is obliterated, how about yours?


The value of a good interrupting idea has to be higher than ever today.

Boredom or whatever you call the glazed-eyes task-switching zombie-scanning that characterizes how we read stuff online needs a major kick in the face to free our attention.

Been interrupted by any good ideas lately?

P.S. Here’s another pair of Caples gems, from his New York Times obituary:

“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ‘only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.’ He also advised copywriters to ‘use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader’ because ‘the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.”’

Living in a Material(ized) World

When something “materializes”, what happens exactly?

If I’m on the spot, I’ll say something goes from a state of being invisible or nonexistent to visible or existent.

But there are a lot of gray areas there… magical, even spooky stuff.

There’s a nice fat usage note on “materialize” in the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Let’s break it down:

“In its original sense, materialize is used without an object to mean ‘to assume material form,’ as in Marley’s ghost materialized before Scrooge’s eyes…”


*chains rattle*


So it sounds like back in Dickens’s day, the word was reserved for the literal description of an invisible thing reverse-fading (is that what you call it?) into visibility.

What have we done since then?

“But these uses are probably less common nowadays than the two extended senses of the verb. In the first, the meaning is roughly ‘to appear suddenly,’ as in No sooner had we set the menu down than a waiter materialized at our table.

I like the idea of “extended sense”. Isn’t extending sense how language evolves?

The waiter wasn’t a chain-lugging ghost who emerged from some ether to take a mozzarella stick order.

He just walked over to the table. But as far as the hungry, distracted diners were concerned, he may as well have pulled a Jacob Marley.

Not everybody is happy about this:

“Some critics have labeled this use as pretentious or incorrect, but it has been around for more than a century, appears in the writing of highly respected writers, and seems a natural extension of the original sense.”

Have these critics ever succeeded in shutting down a change to English? I’m imagining  Gandalf and the Balrog: (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!“)

If you know of such an instance, please let me know in the comments.

One more step in the evolution of materialize:

“Materialize tends to be applied to things or events that have been foreseen or anticipated, and usually occurs in negative constructions: The promised subsidies never materialized. It was thought the community would opposed the measure, but no new objections materialized.”

So we’ve ended up at materialize referring to: Things that never existed continuing to never exist.

And even if they came into existence–objections, subsidies, whatever–they would still just be intangible words or numbers.

I’d say this is fitting in our increasingly digital world of bitcoins, blog posts, information products, et al. What can we still touch?

The tangible is fading, like Jacob Marley back into the fireplace.

What does the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come have to show us tonight?

Book Review: “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence” by Daniel Goleman


I bought this book because I want to sharpen my ability to focus, and also because I have a lot of respect for Daniel Goleman’s important work on emotional intelligence.

I finished it a little bit disappointed, feeling like I knew some interesting facts about how focus works and can work, but without much in the way of useful information about how to increase my own focus.

I already knew that mindfulness is a good and valuable skill to train. I already knew that certain video games targeted at brain functions could train the brain in good ways rather than bad–I’ve used Lumosity, an online arcade of “good” video games since 2012 (with inconclusive results).

And I needed a couple of days to recover from Goleman’s report of the shocking “Dunedin Study” which basically showed that without willpower, there is a very good scientific chance a person is screwed for life–poverty and depression at best, criminality at worst.

Definitely plausible, but very hard to swallow as a person who has struggled with willpower for thirty years.

But perhaps that’s unfair–perhaps I came to it with too much expectation that it would provide me with neatly-packaged self-help platitudes and programs.

Goleman is a deep-thinker type, with his motivation for writing split–I’m speculating–30%/70% between actively improving readers’ lives, and passively sharing some really interesting thoughts and research.

And some of it is indeed really interesting. The analysis of “top-down” vs. “bottom-up” brain processing is applicable many times over the course of every day. (Although it’s also covered in slightly different terminology in Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”).

Also good–though like Dunedin, also worrisome to anyone who’s not a superstar at something–is his discussion of how the value of practice is largely negated if the practicer is daydreaming or doing whatever it is imperfectly.

Finally, there is the funny meta-problem that many reviewers on Amazon rightly point out, that the book itself is somewhat unfocused.

It seems to roughly follow a “small to large” progression, starting with the inside-the-brain processes, and ostensibly “zooming out” to look at how focus works on larger scales like person-to-person, then analyzing large data systems, and so on.

But the transitions between sections are far from smooth or intuitive, and there were a couple of times when I wondered if I was still reading the same book. Then again, maybe I wasn’t focusing.

And while this isn’t an issue for me, Goleman concludes on a slightly political note by arguing that the highest form of focus humankind could muster right now is to stop doing things like harming the planet and increasing the wealth gap.

These may indeed be very important to deal with, but it seems incongruous with a totally even-handed look at “The Hidden Driver of Excellence”.