The death of the Saturday Review is certainly to be lamented, but the hard truth is that there is little compelling reason for gnashing one's teeth or tearing one's hair. The magazine had been on its deathbed for so long -- the larger part of two decades, in fact -- that its expiration was, if anything, a long-delayed anticlimax. More to the point, it was a journal of so little genuine distinction that it is difficult to imagine anyone missing it very much.

I don't mean to sound cold-blooded or flippant about this. The death of a venerable publication is always to be regretted; the half-million subscribers who stuck with the Saturday Review doubtless feel they have lost a friend, free-lance writers must rue the disappearance of yet another potential source of income and reputation, and the magazine's employes can hardly welcome being cast onto the job market at a time when jobs are so hard to come by.

One of those employes, Robert Harris, is known and respected by just about everybody connected with the book-publishing industry, and all of us regret not merely his joblessness -- though he is far too talented and experienced for that to last very long -- but also the premature termination of his heroic salvage operation on Saturday Review's book department. In his brief year as the magazine's literary editor, Harris imparted new depth and energy to a section that had foundered for years; people in publishing followed SR's reviews with renewed interest, and there was a widespread feeling that it was becoming a literary journal of some consequence. That this noble effort has been sabotaged by the cruel realities of magazine publishing is a very real loss.

But those realities are cruel and they are real. Leaving aside the much-reported economic ones -- the decline of broadly based magazines of general interest; the flight of advertising dollars to specialized, limited-circulation publications; the forbidding increase in fourth-class postal rates--there is also the editorial one: except for the book section and the "Double Crostic," there was precious little reason to read Saturday Review. Its coverage of movies and the theater was dreadful; its efforts to be jazzy and with-it were embarrassingly inept; its bromide-in-residence, Norman Cousins, had been repeating himself for years. That SR kept as many subscribers as it did is a tribute more to their loyalty and forbearance than to the magazine itself.

In the hour of SR's demise it's helpful to remind ourselves that magazines, like the people who publish and read them, have finite lives; we also need to bear in mind, though it is difficult to accept, that once those lives end the world goes quite merrily along without them, indeed as if they had never existed. When magazines die we feel badly for the people whose paychecks depended on them, but we rarely miss the magazines themselves as much as we'd thought we would. Is anybody out there still shedding tears for Scribner's or The American Mercury or Colliers or Look? Of course not. As I wrote a couple of years ago:

"Magazines may become institutions, but that does not grant them immortality. They live as long as they can keep up with changing times and publishing realities; when they cannot, they die. It's always sad to see them go -- but something else usually comes along to replace them."

I stand by those words today, but they have acquired an irony that bears notice. For one thing -- and this would be terribly funny were it not so sad -- they originally appeared in an unsigned editorial in The Washington Star. For another, that editorial was headlined, "Harper's: Hail and Farewell." If that doesn't tell you all you need to know about my prescience, then nothing will. For even as the Saturday Review disappears into oblivion, Harper's lives on, defying the natural laws of journalistic selection. Even more amazingly, there is evidence that it actually deserves its new life.

We are talking, mind you, about Harper's, the magazine that over the past decade managed the considerable feat of making the Atlantic seem vivacious by comparison -- Harper's, the antidote to Dexedrine. Two summers ago Harper's was as doomed as any magazine could be, and when the MacArthur Foundation gave it a life-sustaining injection of cold cash my immediate reaction was that this was a bald, entirely unwarranted instance of artificial resuscitation; my feeling was that the old girl should be allowed to die in peace and then be given a quiet, respectful burial.

Which shows you just how much I know. Harper's in its new incarnation may or may not be finding readers and advertisers (certainly the latter do not seem to be flocking to its pages), but its editorial content has suddenly made a dramatic improvement. The August 1982 Harper's is, from front to back, the best single issue of an American magazine that I have seen in some time. I have no idea whether this is a mere stroke of luck, or whether under the editorship of Michael Kinsley the publication has permanently changed its character. Whatever the case, from Robert M. Kaus' indictment of the merchandising of "access" in Washington at the front of the magazine to the brief book reviews at the back, this issue of Harper's is just about everything a journal of opinion and debate should be: intelligent, imaginative, enterprising, forthright, literate. If it tends rather unnecessarily toward the pugnacious -- "Look at me!" it seems to be shouting -- that is a small enough crime when weighed against the issue's many strengths.

Harper's, like the Saturday Review, had become an old, tired enterprise. Now, like the Saturday Review, Harper's is putting on new clothes and praying for new readers and advertisers. Here the similarities end: Harper's has improved the entire magazine, while SR managed to revive only the book section. It is my earnest hope that distinction will be rewarded and that Harper's will be spared SR's ignominious fate; but history, not to mention natural selection, suggests otherwise. We'd better enjoy it while we can.