Portrait of a Philosopher

WHEN DEATH came for Plato, he was hard at work, busily revising one of his dialogues. While investigative journalist turned classical scholar I.F. Stone doesn't much care for the Athenian ("nobody ever got away with so much egregious nonsense out of sheer charm"), he seems to have found a role model.

Heart trouble forced Stone to give up writing and publishing his biweekly newspaper in 1971. He was 63, an age where some men are contemplating nothing more rigorous than shuffleboard. Stone plunged instead into an intensive examination of freedom of thought in human history that resulted in his learning ancient Greek and writing The Trial of Socrates (to be published later this month by Little, Brown).

"It's so wonderful in your later years to tackle something new," he says. "You feel like a youngster again. There's at least the illusion of rejuvenation."

In the book, Stone takes on the role of Socrates' defense lawyer, attempting to discover why a civilization devoted to free speech could have condemned the philosopher to death. "The first light of freedom was there in Greece, and then this dreadful, horrible thing happened," he says. "It agonizes me. I still don't have an answer." Nevertheless, he says in his preface that by giving the Athenian side of the story, he hopes to "mitigate the city's crime and thereby remove some of the stigma the trial left on democracy and on Athens."

The book took shape slowly. "I went to work, and wasn't sure I would ever finish," he says. As recently as three years ago, Stone's failing eyesight had convinced him that it was chutzpah to do more than lecture. Then technology, in the form of an Apple computer, provided a helping hand. The screen display is in the equivalent of 24-point bold type -- almost the size of a Book World headline.

"It's wonderful for my eyes," he says. "As a result, I was able to do four complete drafts, and a fifth revision. But I'm feeling guilty because I know Tolstoy rewrote Anna Karenina eight times." To read books and newspapers, he uses special lights and magnifying glasses: "I see through a glass darkly," he notes, "as it says in Corinthians."

Publication of his Socrates is the beginning of a Stone renaissance. Several earlier books, including 1967's In a Time of Torment, 1971's Polemics and Prophecies and 1953's The Truman Era, will be republished over the next 18 months by Little, Brown, along with a new collection of the best of Stone's recent articles. "I don't know who will bother to read them, but it's nice to have them reissued," he says.

Actually, they could do more than that: they might provide the impetus for an evaluation of Stone's place in the postwar history of Washington. Andrew Patner, in his forthcoming I.F. Stone: A Portrait (Pantheon), notes that "one can search in vain through much of the literature of the periods in which Stone was active as a journalist for as much as a mention of his name." Patner's affectionate and informative study concludes that Stone's lack of academic credentials and tendency to remain outside the general press fraternity are largely responsible for his neglect by historians.

When he was publishing his newspaper, Stone was somewhere between a polemicist and an ordinary reporter. "I dreamed of taking the flotsam of the week's news and making it sing," he said in the last issue. To achieve that, he relied not on inside tips or leaks from policymakers but on the aggressive analysis of government documents. "The bureaucracies put out so much," he once said, "they cannot help letting the truth slip out from time to time."

He still saves his mornings for the papers, where he finds "all kinds of things" that deserve further investigation, but don't get it. Still, he doesn't want to be too gloomy: "I'm not fond of Sunday supplement cliche's about the decline and fall of the American Empire. This is not as bad as when the Mamelukes invaded Egypt, not as bloody as the French Revolution. The world's been going to hell in a handbasket for about 3,000 years, and our situation is not without precedents."

Doubleday's About-face

YEARS BEFORE Rodney Dangerfield arrived on the scene, Doubleday got no respect. Not that the publisher deserved any. Until this past year, the physical quality of its books was often an insult to the customer who had just forked over $16.95 for one.

One Doubleday employee remembers that customers would call up and complain that the books they had purchased had fallen apart. "We'd just sigh and send them another one," she says. A former employee says there were frequent inquiries from libraries. "They would say, 'This is the book club edition, and I asked for the trade edition. This one's too cheaply made.' And we'd say, 'You have the trade edition. They're exactly the same.' "

Well, not exactly, says Doubleday associate publisher Bill Barry, but close enough.

"There was always a difference between the trade and the book club edition," Barry says. He says that copies that went to bookstores got a better grade of paper and better binding material. Still, the difference was marginal. "To be quite frank . . . our package, by our own admission, lagged behind specifications that most publishers were using," he says.

To save money, the publisher sometimes went to even greater lengths. "To make the books fit Doubleday's rigid production formats, a book that ran just a bit over a standard length would have pages cut to make it fit," says the former employee. "They would have the editor edit down the last chapter. The design was set, and they made the content fit inside that."

If the previous management was, as Barry says, "perhaps a little shy in terms of making the capital investment to update their presses," the present management isn't. When Bertelsmann bought Doubleday a year ago, the West German publishing behemoth decided to devote $30 million to new production equipment.

Already, the books have improved. The paper is thicker; you can no longer see through it. The boards are sturdier. The covers are glossier and more colorful. The net result: a book that once again seems worth the money.

Letters from the Joint

JACK HENRY ABBOTT has returned, but no one appears to care very much. The convicted murderer's second book, issued in September by the iconoclastic Buffalo firm Prometheus, hasn't even sold out of its tiny 3,500-copy print run. And even the publisher seems unsure whether it should have bothered. "It has raised a lot of moral quandaries," says Prometheus president Paul Kurtz.

One of those quandaries was the doing of literary critic Lionel Abel, who was initially responsible for My Return finding its publisher. Abel had earlier reviewed Abbott's first book, In the Belly of the Beast, a collection of prison writings that briefly made the paroled author the hit of literary New York. Then Abbott stabbed to death a waiter, was sent back to prison, and there was much hand-wringing among the intellectuals.

"We had a correspondence for about six months, and he sent me a play he had written about the killing," says Abel. "I sent it to Prometheus. They decided to issue it with our correspondence, but Abbott suddenly insisted on editing both his and my letters. He completely revised his letters, turning them into essays. He was afraid of the reviews, afraid of remarks he had let drop."

Abel felt this was dishonest, and pulled out of the project. "I'm sick of the whole thing," he says now. "You can't trust him." Prometheus, which specializes in skeptical studies of religion and the paranormal, went ahead, but makes it clear that it is not endorsing Abbott's perspectives.

"It provides his point of view" of the 1981 murder of the waiter, who ironically was an aspiring playwright, says Kurtz. "It's not a neutral or objective account. It's an effort to exonerate himself, and that's interesting." Nevertheless, he's not completely convinced it was a worthwhile project. "Maybe we made a mistake," he says. "We're not perfect."

In the Margin

PRIME TIME, coming in August from Linden Press, is the fictional story of five Hollywood women. One of them, according to the publisher's publicity notes, "will be chosen to play Miranda, the scheming, sexy, glamorous, bitchy temptress in Saga, the hottest series ever to hit the TV screen, the role of a lifetime, a role to kill for." Does this sound like a Jackie Collins blockbuster, even down to the two-word title? If you think so, you're only half right. Prime Time is sister Joan's first novel. Perhaps this means Jackie will demand equal time, and start appearing on Dynasty . . .

The A Day in the Life series (the most recent example covers the Soviet Union) is an idea that has taken hold with a vengeance. Next fall, aside from A Day in the Life of Spain and A Day in the Life of California, there will be Christmas in America, which is introducing some variations into the formula. Shooting this time ran for 42 days, from Thanksgiving through Jan. 6, and the book will also have eight essays by well-known authors. The most astonishing thing is the projected size of the first printing: 550,000. Undoubtedly, that's a record for a $35 gift book. ::