Few problems in the history of human activity on earth have proved as intractable as the placement of the apostrophe in the title of the Reader’s Digest magazine. Indeed, running it close as a question which befuddles the heads of the best and brightest is whether the title includes the definite article or not. As if to demonstrate that I know precisely what I am talking about, we have seen two variants, Reader’s Digest and The Readers’ Digest, right here at Hooting Yard in the past few days.
Hooting Yard itself does not contain an apostrophe, thank heavens, but occasionally it has been referred to as The Hooting Yard. I have no idea where on earth those who deploy this usage get that The from. Mr Key has certainly never used it himself. Let us be clear. There is not now, nor has there ever been, nor will there ever be, in any conceivable future, a prefixed definite article in Hooting Yard. If any doubt remains, the best idea would be for those who cannot grasp this simple fact to have the previous sentence tattooed, in mirror writing, upon their foreheads.
If only things were so plain and straightforward in Reader’s Digest land. But they are not. Let us get that definite article out of the way to begin with, before we concentrate our pulsating brains upon the knotty problem of the apostrophe. The issue is clouded by the fact that Reader’s Digest (without the The) is published by The Reader’s Digest Association (with the The). Easy enough, then, for a person who is not necessarily a dimwit or a clodpoll to carry over the definite article from the name of the publisher to the publication it publishes. There is a certain logic to doing so. But therein lie the perils of granting too high a status to logic. Yes, human beings have developed the powers of logic over millennia, and they have proved a boon in many fields of endeavour, from agriculture to zoology. But logic only gets us so far, and ought not be applied in those areas where it is a drawback. I am thinking of such areas as politics and magazine nomenclature. In politics, logic, or at least the illusion of logic, leads to the utopian barbarities of Lenin or Pol Pot. In magazine nomenclature, it leads to calling Reader’s Digest The Reader’s Digest. Granted, in the latter case the human consequences are negligible, even nonexistent, but we must always beware of slippery slopes. That is the lesson an elderly relative taught me after an Alpine to-do. Recounting the details of the to-do might provide this piece with some much needed colour and vim and grit, but lord love a duck!, another time… another time…
Lesson One, then. The title of the magazine is Reader’s Digest, without a The.
Having honed our wits on that one, we can turn to the infinitely more pernickety problem of the apostrophe. Curiously enough, logic, or the absence of logic, will be of no help to us here. One of the reasons the placement of the apostrophe in the title has proved so maddening for so many for so many decades is that an argument can be made, and a compelling argument to boot, for both Reader’s and Readers’. Neither is, in and of itself, in context, right or wrong. Let us recall what was in the minds of the founders, De Witt Wallace (1889-1981), and his ever-loving wife Lila Bell Wallace née Acheson (1889-1984). Their bright idea was to gather a sample of articles on many subjects from various monthly magazines and journals, sometimes condensing and rewriting them, and to combine them into a single publication – a digest. A bit like Hooting Yard, in other words. Well, not really. Not at all in fact. I don’t know why I wrote that, unless perhaps I was brain-bedizened at the thought of the millions of readers the Wallaces attracted, almost from the start in 1922. Let me take a deep breath and becalm my pounding brainpans and continue.
Having concocted the idea of a Digest for Magazine Readers, it must have been a simple enough matter for De Witt and Lila Bell to plump for Reader’s Digest – or Readers’ Digest – as the name of their publication. A few months ago, in discussing Skippy The Bush Kangaroo, I imagined its creator John McCallum sitting at the breakfast table with his wife Googie Withers, as he struggled to come up with the name of the bush kangaroo heroine of his television series. We might similarly imagine the Wallaces at breakfast, not of course in Sydney, Australia, but in their modest yet beautifully-appointed home in Minneapolis St Paul. De Witt, you may recall, was recovering from shrapnel wounds received in Flanders fields during the Great War, so in this scene we might picture him still enbandaged, whey-faced and peaky.
Lila Bell : Given your shrapnel wounds, sweet darling, are you sure you are able to spread that Lurpak on your toast, or would you like me to help?
De Witt : I think I can manage, oh poppet. I am just thinking how lucky we are to have this Danish proprietary brand of butter available, here in Minnesota in the early nineteen-twenties.
Lila Bell : It is undoubtedly one of the benefits of the capitalist system, light of my life. But let us try to reach a final decision on the placement of the apostrophe in the title of the magazine we hope to publish soon.
De Witt : [Unintelligible response due to mouth crammed with toast ‘n’ Lurpak.]
Lila Bell : I did not quite catch that, honeybun. Remember, it pays to refine your table manners.
De Witt : [Swallowing, and wiping his mouth with a napkin.] I apologise, dear heart. That was most remiss of me. Let me repeat what I said, this time with a mouth free of toast ‘n’ Lurpak. I think the best place for the apostrophe is – – –
De Witt Wallace is interrupted by a sudden and insistent hammering at the door. Lila Bell goes to answer it, to find a person from Porlock on the doorstep.
Having researched the matter thoroughly, I am able to reconstruct what De Witt Wallace was about to say, to wit:
De Witt : – – – between the R and the S rather than after the S.
And I like to think that, given the chance, he would have continued as follows:
De Witt : The apostrophe placed after the S suggests our magazine is a digest for readers, plural. Which, of course, is what we desire, if we are not to be cast into penury, fire of my loins. We will scarcely be able to build a global publishing empire without a multitude of readers, whose digest we will provide.
Lila Bell : Then I fail to see the logic of your pronouncement, popsy.
De Witt : Ah, pumpkin, but by placing the apostrophe to suggest it is a digest for just one reader, we cleverly instil in each and every reader’s mind that the magazine is for them, and them alone. Even though it isn’t. We are saying, “You are the reader, and this digest is just for you”.
Lila Bell : Gosh!
Thus, Lesson Two : The apostrophe in Reader’s Digest appears between the R and the S, not after the S.