Year of the Reader

THE YEAR of the Reader -- 1987 -- is a program initiated by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress to encourage the reading of books throughout America. Congress passed a resolution proclaiming the Year of the Reader and the president signed it. State affiliates of the Center for the Book have built programs around the idea, and organizations such as the International Reading Association -- the giant grouping of reading teachers -- have used the Year of the Reader as the theme of annual meetings.

Various publishers have also employed the idea in promotions. One of the most interesting was put together by Ballantine/Del Rey/Fawcett, a paperback division of Random House. In connection with the Year of the Reader, several of the company's best-known writers were asked to write 750-word essays on the one book "that made a difference" in their lives.

Barbara Tuchman -- whose books Bible & Sword and A Distant Mirror are published by Ballantine -- writes that it was the accumulated influence of an author, rather than a single book, that made an impression on her. She says that at the age of about 8, she read a book called The Belgian Twins by Lucy Fitch Perkins, which stimulated her interest in history. It was set during the German occupation of Belgium in World War I. Tuchman also points to other books in Perkins' twins series, such as The French Twins and The Twins of the American Revolution, which "I believe locked me into concern with real events of the past."

The Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, whose novel The Handmaid's Tale is published by Fawcett/Crest, says that when she was growing up, she used to spend half the year deep in a forest in northern Quebec, where her father ran a research station. Lacking the normal diversions of city life, books became very imporant to her. Among those she cites are the work of Beatrix Potter, Alice in Wonderland, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson and the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales.

Atwood says she is always astonished when she hears the Grimms' tales denounced as sexist. "It seems to me," she says, "that the various traits were quite evenly spread. There were wicked wizards as well as wicked witches, stupid women as well as stupid men, slovenly husbands as well as slovenly wives."

James A. Michener, whose novel Texas has been a big hit for Fawcett/Crest, says a key book of his youth was William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, which he read while boating on the Chesapeake in the summer before his senior year at Swarthmore College. Says Michener: "It was in following the intricacies of this novel that I first saw, in my own terms, how a work of fiction could be constructed. I saw the importance of setting, of character development, of the clever imposition of the author, of the value of witty observation."

"Later," adds Michener, "in Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks I discovered how to construct a narrative that covers more than one generation, and then I had my armament for the long battles ahead."

Leo Buscaglia, whose books of inspiration Bus 9 to Paradise and Loving Each Other are published by Fawcett/Columbine, says that in high school his bookishness subjected him to insults and ridicule and feelings of disappointment, melancholy and depresssion. But in his senior year, his English teacher presented him with a copy of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. "At last I was not alone," says Buscaglia. Quixote, he adds, was a character who "acted upon his visions, gave meaning to his fancy and imagination, and celebrated the beauty of the soul and body . . . Senåor Quixote saved me. He renewed my will to follow my star. He encouraged me to again take up my splintered lance."

A Book Find

AS AN inveterate grubber in the dusty recesses of old bookstores, I am always heartened to hear stories of genuine discoveries. In a recent issue of the trade publication AB Bookman's Weekly, bookdealer Tom McCauley of Langhorne, Pa., tells a tale of such a find. Among his interests, McCauley collects books by G.K. Chesterton and at a small sale he picked up a copy of the young Chesterton's Browning (1903), a volume in the well-known English Men of Letters Series published by Macmillan of London.

It is a common enough book and not of great value in itself, particularly because there was wear on the spine. Hours later, at home, McCauley sat down to examine his day's purchases and was pleased to find that the Chesterton volume was a first edition. Then he discovered that there were two bookplates. Normally, this does not please a bookseller. Unless the bookplate is by a well-known artist such as Lynn Ward or Rockwell Kent, a bookplate generally reduces the worth of a volume.

The bookplates were on on the inner front cover, a large centered one and below it, a small one as big as two postage stamps. In convoluted gothic script, it bore the initials ACS. A plainer script encircling the letters read: "From the Library of Algernon Charles Swinburne, The Pines, Putney Hill."

Swinburne, the famous English poet, arrived at No. 2 The Pines in the London suburb of Putney in 1879 at the age of 42 and remained there for the last 30 years of his life. By the time he came there, he was an utter dissolute and an alcoholic, poverty-stricken and abandoned by his friends. He was invited to The Pines by Theodore Watts (later Watts-Dunton), owner of the house. Watts-Dunton kept Swinburne on a close leash, allowing the poet only tuppence a day for a single beer at a local pub.

At the second floor back of The Pines, Swinburne kept a library composed only of review copies and gifts, since he had no money to buy books. McCauley reasons that the Browning volume is a review copy from that library. Swinburne died in 1909, bequeathing library, manuscripts and copyrights to Watts-Dunton, who just before he died five years later sold part of Swinburne's collection to the bookman -- and, as was later proved, first-class forger -- Thomas J. Wise.

It is McCauley's guess that Chesterton's Browning was not among the items Watts-Dunton sold to Wise. The remainder of the library was dispersed after Watts-Dunton's widow died in 1938. Other intriguing questions remain unanswered. How, for example, did the book get to Livingston, N.J., where McCauley bought it? Perhaps we'll never know. The book's odyssey, says McCauley, is less important than "the surprise, the enjoyment of the find." This sort of thing, he says, "will continue to happen as long as there are bookmen and collectors willing to seek and sometimes find. They may be in bookstores or at book fairs; they may be in the boondocks; they may be anywhere."

In the Margin

IDAHO IS not very big in the publishing business, but a new small publisher there has made something of a hit with its first book. The firm is Randt and Co. of Ketchum, Idaho. The book is Carson: The Unauthorized Biography by Paul Corkery, a frequent contributor to TV Guide and other magazines. It is about television star Johnny Carson. Randt has ordered a first printing of 95,000.

I thought that the new black-comic mystery Murder in Soho by Harvey Shapiro and Paulett Tumay, which flays the Manhattan art world, would arouse ire. And indeed it has. In an early review, the art critic of the magazine Manhattan, inc. hits the ceiling about Murder in Soho, and also fulminates about three other books making fun of the New York art scene -- Tama Janowitz's 1986 novel Slaves of New York, Peter Clothier's 1985 mystery Chiarascuro and Stephen Koch's novel The Bachelor's Bride. Makes me want to read them all.

How many publishers are there throughout the world? The answer is more than 160,000. That information is gleaned from the International ISBN Publisher's Directory 1987, published by the International ISBN Agency in Berlin and distributed in the Western Hemisphere by R.R. Bowker. ISBN, of course, refers to the International Standard Book Number, a code designed to assign an identifying number to all books published around the world. The ISBN system is widely used by libraries and bookstores for bibliographic and inventory control. The 160,000 figure, which covers publishers from Andorra to Zambia in the volume's alphabetic listing, is up from 150,000 in the last previous directory. ::