Delving Into Reader's Digest

by Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún

Cover detail of 1967 Reader's Digest UK features Table of Contents bottom section, including "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power" on page 17
Detail of Reader's Digest, 1967

A few weeks ago, I read that Reader’s Digest (U.K.) was shutting down after 86 years. I’ve returned to the news several times since then, to remind myself of what Reader’s Digest meant to my earliest memory of reading.

Àkóbọ̀, where I grew up in Ìbàdàn, Nigeria, is what one might call a village—at least it was in the early ’80s; it’s since grown into a densely populated neighbourhood of more than a hundred thousand people. My parents had chosen Àkóbọ̀ for its quietness, well away from the bustle of town nearby. “From the Bashorun bridge,” my mother would recall, “you could see maybe two or three new roofs in the village, and one of them was ours.” The others belonged to friends with whom they’d decided to take a respite from urban life. They lived amid the original villagers, whose mud houses had thatched roofs, and who were indifferent to modern amenities. To the villagers, these educated newcomers—alákọ̀wé, they must have called them, a playful-derisive word for “book people”—must have cut a strange figure. But the contacts between them all were cordial. Village people made the best versions of the local food, and often hawked treats around the neighbourhood for the alákọ̀wés to buy.

By the time I arrived on the scene, the fifth of six children, my father’s career as a writer and broadcaster was in full bloom, but the books and toys in the house had survived four earlier children and many relatives, and so retained nothing of their earlier sheen. The bicycle was a wreck, but was passed on to me anyway. The books were worn; and I’d discover them, often by accident, in hidden places around the house. Father perhaps exasperated by the lack of care with which books he’d bought were treated, simply took back control and made his private study off-limits for the children. It was the only way he could retain control over those he had left.

Probably his biggest collection was of Reader’s Digest, a small magazine of fascinating stories, puzzles, and jokes. Father had bought them at publication, and read them diligently. The versions I came to read were from the ’60s and ’70s, but the stories weren’t always dated. The homely style of writing and the subject matter made them evergreen. The covers, too, with the table of contents printed right on the front in charmingly tiny type, were irresistible. But when I first took note of these magazines at the age of ten or so, it wasn’t the essays or articles or typography that caught my attention. It was “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” a column of extremely corny jokes that were often not as funny as I hoped they’d be, but were fun to encounter anyway. Years later, when I started paying more attention to writing and its processes, my attention shifted to “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” a puzzle column that supplied the answers on a different page, sometimes upside down, to prevent cheating.

If I had to say when my attention to words and their aesthetic value really began, I’d point to those days with Reader’s Digest.

But I was not alone. As Àkóbọ̀ grew from its early days as a small refuge for city-wearied alákọ̀wés into a more cosmopolitan space, I realized that the magazine was not just my private pleasure. Friends in school had parents who subscribed as well, and I eventually came across more recent editions which, in the ruinous economy of Nigeria in the 90s had grown scarce, because of import restrictions. Aside from school books, Sesame Street, Mills & Boon romance novels, and the James Hadley Chase detective stories that found their way into our hands, I would guess that Reader’s Digest was one of the biggest sources of Nigerian English vocabulary in those days, and quite possibly the reason why we use “delve” instead of “dive”, “exorbitant” instead of “expensive”, “interim” instead of “temporary”, and “panacea” instead of “solution”, among other words that entered our consciousness one after the other. Though a number of middle-class fathers listened obsessively to shortwave radio, to catch the news on the BBC, VOA, etc., the books, magazines and newspapers that made it into Nigeria provided the chief route for catching up with evolving English language use. Because words first acquired in the refined crucibles of fiction and pleasure reading were not always the most appropriate in colloquial speech, whatever awkwardness attended such use was subsumed under an agreeable assumption of high learning and scholarship.

If the Oxford English Dictionary was the prime lexicographic authority for British English in Nigeria, I think the Reader’s Digest, back then at least, would have come in second place.

Okay, this is all my conjecture—the only way back through the long memory lane, both of my own acquisition of spoken English as a second language in a colonized space, and as a first language reader. 

But around the same time as the news broke of Reader’s Digest’s closure in the U.K., Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator and well-known pontificating tech bro, recklessly announced that every contact he’s made with the word “delve”—or any equally highfalutin word, either on Twitter or elsewhere—has raised his suspicions of the involvement of ChatGPT, causing a ruckus that took many weeks to settle. Sadly, I found myself too busy at the moment of the uproar to muster more than a few tepid tweets. In another lifetime I would have loved to write longer essays exploring the growth and politics of Nigerian English, the influence of print culture, and Nigeria’s famous predilection for ostentatious language (there, I did it again). 

Many of those who responded to Graham mentioned a more insidious problem: the condescending ascription of an unfamiliar style of speaking/writing to technology, rather than the myriad of sociopolitical influences that are already intimately familiar to those who do not consider themselves “native speakers” of English, but use it just the same to produce pleasurable, creative communications, and, where required, flawlessly professional competence.

There are millions of speakers of English who have had contact with the English-speaking peoples through colonialism, and cultural contact through literature and film, together with the intricate Anglophone stew produced by globalisation, in which billions of children learn in the English language during their most formative years of school life. If this global archipelago of English speakers, which has produced Pulitzer, Nobel, and Booker prizewinners over the years, cannot—even now—own the right to speak the language in the way most familiar and natural to them without their agency being called into question, then the problem is not technology, but a carryover of the regrettable colonial condescension that insists that we adopt a particular tool of speaking, but withholds final approval through its own sheer arbitrary, self-consequential ignorance.

All this is to say nothing of AI itself, whose large language models are trained on text corpora including sources like Reader’s Digest, novels, magazines, academic journals, textbooks, blogs, and histories, where language isn’t always expected to be colloquial. ChatGPT and its brethren can only reflect real, human input, and should not supplant our own curiosity about, and acceptance of, the incalculable riches of English.

While powerful tech bros like Graham continue to hold the keys to places closed off to people with language characteristic of non-native spaces, without the requisite open-mindedness to the possibility of their own native privilege and its attendant blindness, the imbalances that technologies like ChatGPT were invented to mitigate will persist and even deepen as we delve headfirst into the next turbulent phase of society’s evolution. Except this time, by choice. So much for Word Power.