THE ANNUAL convention of the American Historical Association took place in New York just before New Year's. Even when you could manage to elbow your way into the crowded sessions, my chief spy reported, you could hardly hear a word because most speakers disdained microphones and never projected beyond the fourth row. In short, your typical academic convention.

My main complaint is that the convention program was practically devoid of bizarre titles to poke fun at. In vain would one turn its pages searching for a paper on "Carolingian Garbage Disposal" or "The Washington Senators and the Growth of Baseball Management Training Programs." Perhaps the historians have thrown in the towel and ceded all silly titles to social science conventions.

Speaking of matters such as titles, there were an enormous number of apparently interesting books being produced by the university presses, which as usual were at the convention in force. Oxford University Press sported a particularly good-looking crop from 1985: The Breakdown of Democratic Party Organization: 1940-1980 by Alan Ware of the University of Warwick, England; Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure by Peter Gardella of Manhattanville College; The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture by David Shi of Davidson College, and Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States by Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia University. (I hope all these gentlemen will kneel down and say a short prayer of thanksgiving for the existence of the colon.)

Always the social butterfly, I did attend one of the parties in orbit around the convention, given by the Institute of Early American History and Culof Williamsburg, and met some nice people. Someone introduced me to Alison G. Olson of the history department at the University of Maryland, a veritable hotbed of colonial historians. Professor Olson's field is Anglo-American relations in the 17th and 18th centuries and she is completing a book on interest groups -- religious, ethnic and mercantile -- who maintained links across the seas in the colonial era. "It's all finished," she said, "except for a last chapter which refuses to get written." At that, she gritted her teeth, as if savoring the combat.

Professor Olson in turn introduced me to the chairman of the history department at Maryland, Emory Evans. "Are you giving a paper at the convention?" I asked, by way of openers. "Oh no!" said the white-haired, twinkly-eyed Prof. Evans. "I'm hiring." He was alluding, of course, to the interviewing of candidates for posts, which is a big part of all academic conventions. Evans in his turn passed me on to John Selby, chairman of the history department at William and Mary. The prolific Prof. Selby has several projects afoot, including a volume on the history of the colony of Virginia to the revolution, of which he is co-author. It is due out in May and the publisher is Kraus-Thomson, which specializes in scholarly books. In addition, Selby's book, Virginia and the Revolution: 1775-1783, will be out in about a year from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Our Origins

JUST OUT is a fascinating book called Origins: A Sceptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, published by Sum mit, a division of Simon & Schuster. The sceptical author is an eminently respectable professor of chemistry at New York University named Robert Shapiro. Shapiro is an expert on extraterrestrial chemistry and is the co-author with Gerald Feinberg of Columbia University of a highly praised previous volume called Life Beyond Earth, which discusses the possibility of the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. His new book demolishes current theories about the beginnings of life on earth, while calling for a new start -- with new questions -- about how life originated.

"The vast majority of what has been said to this point about the origins of life is a lot of hot air," Shapiro explained. "The most popular current idea about our origins is that there was a pre-biotic soup that was created through the action of lightning and assembled itself into living cells through random chemical reactions. This is based on a famous experiment by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey in the 1950s. They ran electricity through a sealed chamber containing methane, ammonia and water, and ended up with a couple of the amino acids which are the components in proteins.

"But so what? The gap between a couple of amino acids and even the simplest form of life is so immense that the experiment really tells us nothing about how life began. It's like having an alphabet soup and reaching in and pulling outthe letters a and t. You then declare that since you've made a word, a continuation of the same process will yield Hamlet.

"My favorite theorist is Sir Fred Hoyle, who was president of the Royal Astronomical Society at one time. His latest idea is that the clouds of dust between stars are made up of bacteria and viruses, which were delivered to earth by comets. Among other things, he thinks cancer comes from breathing in outer- space viruses and he believes the nose on human beings evolved to protect us from these bacteria and viruses. Hoyle intrigued the creationists when he said that the viruses and bacteria were put there by a creator, but they weren't too pleased when he identified the creator as an intelligent silicon chip.

"Here's my point. The amount of organization present in even the simplest living thing ready to start evolving by natural selection is much greater than that accounted for by present theories. I think we should be focusing on finding a principle that will account for that complex organization. This is not a religious book. I want to stick with science. But we need a fresh start in looking at the problem."

French Publishing

A FRONT-PAGE story in Le Monde by the journalist Pierre LePape recently appeared under the headline "Jours moroses pour l',edition francaise" -- sad days for French publishing. Examining final publishing figures for 1984, LePape presented a pessimistic picture of an industry in which the big best seller (with accompanying rights sales for films or TV, paperbacks and book clubs) becomes more and more important, while new literary work is comparatively neglected.

The same complaint is made, of course, in the United States. As with the U.S., French publishing is becoming concentrated in fewer hands -- the Hachette group alone is responsible for a quarter of the gross income of the entire industry, while the 44 top companies (of 391) account for 75.9 percent of all sales. After a period of strong growth from 1960 to 1975, there have been some lean years since then for French publishers. Growth for 1984 was up just 2 percent over 1983 and early figures for 1985, according to LePape, indicated the industry would fall back below the 1980 level.

A total of 371,905,142 books rolled off French presses in 1984, with 28,974 titles (including 12,100 new ones), but LePape takes it as a bad sign that social science titles were down by 500 and literary works by 1,000. The percentage of paperback sales continues to grow -- 63 percent of sales of literary titles were in paperback in 1984. There were between 2,000 and 2,500 bookstores in France, and between 15,000 and 20,000 total points of sale, including newsstands, supermarkets, etc.

Sales of books and rights abroad amounted to 13.3 percent of gross income of French companies, but school texts (sold mainly to French-speaking lands) accounted for 28 percent of that figure. The United States is fifth on the list of nations where French books and rights are sold and Britain is 16th. France's best customer for books is Algeria, which just a generation ago, was busily engaged in throwing the French out of the country.

In the Margin

FILM BUFFS will want to take a look at the first two books in a new series of portrait photographs of movie stars just launched by Little, Brown. Each paperback volume contains about a hundred black- and-white photos printed on high-quality glossy paper, together with an introduction on the star by a leading writer. The first two cover Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. Two more books in the spring will deal with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. The price is $14.95 . . . This month sees the first issue of The Washington Book Review, devoted to reviews and commentary. The editor is Alexander Burnham, former managing editor of Dodd, Mead. Welcome.