I began reading American Heritage, the first popular publication about American history, in the late 1960s, when I was a graduate student in history at the University of Utah. When I moved to Boston and began a full-time college teaching career, I began a subscription that has lasted 25 years.

During those years, I have used it frequently both to spice up my own teaching of history and to lose myself in pure enjoyment. That is because American Heritage is designed to appeal to a mass public. It accomplishes what every good history teacher tries to do - make history interesting.This month, American Heritage happily celebrates its 40th year of publication, having made its debut in December 1954. Since then, it has sold nearly 60 million copies and has emerged as one of the magazine industry's most impressive success stories.

The magazine has recently accelerated its pace and vitality, its circulation having doubled in the past eight years to over 300,000 subscribers. Timothy Forbes, current president, thinks it is because "Americans of all backgrounds are more interested in their past. As we approach a new century, many of us are taking stock. We're looking to understand the forces that will shape our future."

In fact, history-related books, magazines and entertainment are on the increase. Ken Burns drew numerous viewers with his TV documentaries, "The Civil War" and "Baseball" - and Turner Broadcasting Inc.'s "The Native Americans" drew widespread interest. Even big-screen epics like "Gettysburg" and "Glory" have been successful, leading to a soon-to-debut History Channel from the Arts & Entertainment Network.

Forbes says, "We're also seeing a new appreciation of the past from baby boomers, who now have one. History is no longer something they learned in school. It is events they've lived through and want to understand, such as Vietnam and Watergate."

For that reason, he says, more readers are turning to American Heritage, which explores the past to define the present.

Over the years, American Heritage, published eight times a year, has evolved from a hardcover bimonthly with no advertising, sold only by subscription, into a contemporary, slick, soft-cover magazine, known as much for its lush, high-quality photos and illustrations as for its lively text.

Only the size has remained constant. Launched by veterans of Time-Life, American Heritage was the first popular publication to apply journalistic techniques to historical subjects. Although its articles are written by historians and scholars, it is done in a breezy, readable style - and the footnotes are left out.

In the inaugural issue, founding editor Bruce Catton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "A Stillness at Appomattox," explained his approach: "Our beat . . . is anything that ever happened in America." He promised to write not only about "great men" but about "the doings of wholly obscure people who made the great men possible."

In fact, in the first six issues it was the out-of-the-ordinary figures who predominated. Of the first 90 pieces, biographical subjects were almost exclusively white men. The only black man to be the subject of an article was a murderer called "Crazy Bill." Only three women made it - Emily Dickinson, Mary Todd Lincoln and Lola Montez (the mistress of the King of Bavaria).

Those who wrote in American Heritage primarily devoted themselves to what Catton conversationally called "a good yarn."

American Heritage proceeded to introduce the work of many noted historians to a mass audience. Many of the nation's premier writers, historians, artists and public figures have been featured in its pages, including John F. Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard Reeves, William Styron, John Updike, Barbara Tuchman, Russell Baker, David Halberstam, John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Steele Commager, Samuel Eliot Morison, Gore Vidal, David McCullough, John Dos Passos, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Alfred Kazin and many others.

Besides popularizing the work of serious historians, American Heritage has made a distinctive contribution to scholarship by recovering many lost or previously unavailable American documents, including the FDR tapes (Feb-ru-ary/-March 1982), secret recordings made by Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office; the earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln (Feb-ru-ary/-March 1994); and the powerful, never before published correspondence between a doomed tank sergeant and his wife on the eve of the Normandy landings (May/June 1994).

A classic I have often shared with my students is the journal of Asa Smith, a member of the 16th Massachusetts Infantry unit in the Army of the Potomac. In the spring of 1862, Smith was severely wounded in the face, eventually discharged for disability - then became a physician, still practicing in the Boston area as late as 1901.

Smith's story was told in one of the earlier hardback issues (February 1971). Published in his own words, Smith presented a graphic and fascinating account of the life of a Civil War soldier. Smith's wound was so serious that his death was considered a certainty. As a result, many other soldiers with much less serious wounds were treated first. Smith was forced to wander from one battlefield to another, desperately seeking medical help. When he finally got it, it was only through connections. His survival was a miracle.

Founders Oliver Jensen, Joseph Thorndike and James Parton sold American Heritage in the late '60s. It was owned successively by McGraw Hill, Engelhard Hanovia and S.P. Reed - until it was purchased by Forbes in 1986.

But more important than ownership changes were the changes in subjects covered not only in the pages of American Heritage but in our actual lives.

Forbes mentions "the emergence of women and the profound if incomplete success in civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities."

Historian Garry Wills says in the 40th anniversary issue (January 1995), "The status of women has undergone greater changes in the last four decades than in the last four centuries. This of itself is enough to identify ours as a revolutionary period. Yet it has been a largely peaceful revolution, and a fruitful one. It tapped the resources of half the human race."

The issue contains enlightening interviews with former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite and with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Cronkite speaks about his disgust with the way history is often taught in the American classroom. "I mean history is the drama, for heaven's sake, of human existence . . . the story of people and how they coped. . . . And it's never taught this way. It's taught in this dull rote - dates and places. People never come alive. . . . Every hour in history class ought to be a terribly exciting lecture on the lives and loves of these people."

In a reflective mood, President Clinton asserts that "history proceeds in cycles to some extent, but also every time is different, and the outcome is not foreordained. I mean, it really does make a difference who's there and what they do." Hillary Clinton recalls her family's Republican roots, noting that they were not fond of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys but were supporters of Eisenhower and Nixon.

"So the feelings I had about the 1960 election about change that seemed to sweep the country was viewed as quite threatening where I grew up (in Illinois) - which gives me some insight into how people feel today about much of what this president is trying to do."

Perhaps the most interesting section in the 40th anniversary issue is one titled "Agents of Change" - short biographies of 10 people much less known than Cronkite or the Clintons, but who changed history in the years since 1954 - people like Luther Terry, the surgeon general who issued the groundbreaking report in 1964 linking smoking to lung cancer.

Or Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish immigrants who bought a record label called Aristocrat and began recording records and selling them out of the back of their car. Eventually, they helped turn the blues into rock 'n' roll and gave us the likes of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, which in turn helped give us bands like the Rolling Stones.

Then there was John Flynn, the "Muhammad Ali of Arizona" who, as a public defender, argued the Miranda vs. Arizona case before the Supreme Court in 1966. The result was the "Miranda warning," in which a police officer warns a person of his or her rights.

And only a year before, Alan Stillman, a perfume and flavor salesman, opened T.G.I. Friday's, the world's first singles bar.

In the mid-'50s, Victor Gruen pioneered the covered shopping mall in Southdale, Minn. Previously, one anchor store in a shopping center was the rule.

Gruen produced a central courtyard equidistant from both stores. It had a roof, because the local climate offered only 126 days of ideal weather a year. "In Southdale Center," the first ads read, "every day will be a perfect shopping day."

This is just some of the history that happened to you.