Philip Hensher: When Reader's Digest ruled

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The Independent Online

The last time I saw it was in a dentist's waiting room. And, come to think of it, the time before that was in the same dentist's waiting room. It's not all that surprising that Reader's Digest has filed for bankruptcy protection in America. It's a fiscal device that hopes to allow the company to restructure its debts and improve the balance books, and it doesn't affect international editions, such as the British one. But its hard to avoid the impression that the company is in trouble, and at the mercy of changing times.

To look through the magazine is to be transported back in time. Not necessarily to 1922, when the company was founded, but to a brave postwar era of self-improvement and a thirst for respectability. Its famous prize draw of £250,000, once unequalled, has been overtaken by national and international lotteries, and for that matter, the prizes in television quiz shows. In exactly the same way, the pillars of its editorial substance seem to have been left behind by the world. And yet £250,000 is not a bad sum of money: some of those creaky old features have some value left in them, surely?

Leave aside the studiously inoffensive "jokes" and snippets of comic observation; ignore the medical investigations. The archetypal Reader's Digest feature is surely "Improve Your Word Power", in which more or less abstruse words are given a number of possible definitions. Like those ancient newspaper adverts wondering if you are ashamed of your command of English, the quiz harks back to a time when people really thought it mattered whether or not you used "egregious" or "jejune" correctly.

Arthur Scargill's dad was supposed to read a dictionary daily. These enterprises similarly rested on the belief that you could improve yourself through knowledge, and by an unapologetically elitist vocabulary. The Reader's Digest is imbued with this now superannuated belief. Its famous Condensed Books series introduced weaker readers to some surprisingly ambitious works of literature, and flattered them by suggesting that they might be too "busy" to get through the whole thing. Of course, most literate people thought of the condensed books with some horror, but now I rather wonder whether the world was not a better place for giving everyone a way into reading.

No wonder they are in trouble. With the example of someone like Chris Moyles on the radio, earning hundreds of thousands of pounds without ever appearing to aspire to articulacy, who on earth believes that you can get ahead by acquiring a large vocabulary? That ambition seems, now, not a matter of aspiration but of snobbery. Years ago, popular BBC television shows were based on dark corners of the dictionary, such as Call My Bluff. The only recent equivalent has documented admittedly interesting attempts to find the origin of such phrases as "the ploughman's lunch". The idea that, now, BBC television might have a books programme, or that extraordinary production where Joseph Cooper asked people to guess what work of classical music he was playing on his silent keyboard, is inconceivable.

The spirit of the Reader's Digest has gone, and, worse, a whole generation has been taught to be scornful of any kind of aspiration in that direction. In the future, I fear, when you go to the dentist, what you will find to read while waiting is Hello magazine. Not much of an improvement.

Can't we let it be?

A week of programmes about The Beatles next month is to centre on a documentary, The Beatles on Record, which promises material that has never before been made public. Before your excitement levels reach boiling point, I should point out that the material is made up of "outtakes and conversations from the final Abbey Road recording sessions". I don't think we can look forward to an undiscovered late masterpiece. The rock industry has long invited us to develop an interest in rudimentary unreleased versions of great songs, studio work, snippets of discussion and so on. This is all very well, but I can't say it adds much to a beautiful legacy. In The Beatles' case, 20 or 30 of those songs, as released between 1962 and 1970, will surely live on for decades just as they are. I don't want to use the expression "barrel scraping", but they really are already lovely artefacts, worthy of our contemplation, in their original form. What end is served by showing us, 40 years on, what The Beatles and their record company didn't think worth exposing to their public?

With bad timing, I found myself in Switzerland while the second act of Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Mask of Orpheus got a concert performance at the Proms. More than usually unfortunate, because one might have to wait for some considerable time until the next opportunity to hear this great opera. First performed in 1986, the opera is, as everyone agrees, the finest and most spectacular work of this hugely distinguished composer. The trouble is, it never gets put on.

I was at the first night of that first run, and it remains one of the most overwhelming nights of my opera-going life. The second act, in which the voice of the God made the whole auditorium shudder as Orpheus descended into Hades, is just an incomparable marriage of music and theatre. And then nothing much happened. There was one concert performance on the Southbank in the 1990s, which was recorded. This was the first performance, I believe, of any of its music in this country since then, and I've never heard of an overseas production. It's a complex and no doubt expensive work to mount, but no-one can doubt its quality, importance, or huge impact on an audience. Would it not be a very appropriate gesture for Birtwistle's 80th birthday in 2014 for Covent Garden to mount the first new production in nearly 30 years?

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