Read Around the Clock

SUPPOSE you get a mad craving for Jane Austen at 3 a.m., and there's simply none in the house? What if you're bored and restless very, very early one morning and want to add to your collection of Edward Hopper monographs? Or perhaps you simply want a cup of coffee in bookish surroundings after midnight some Tuesday and your living room doesn't quite cut it?

Okay, the risk of any of these things happening is somewhere between "slight" and "non-existent." That's why Astraea, a newly opened bookstore at 1275 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., seems close to foolhardy in its stated ambition of 24-hour service. "These doors will never close," it says on the front entrance; to underline the point, the locks have been removed.

While Kramerbooks and its adjoining cafe are open all night Friday and Saturday, there is only one 7-day-a-week, 24-hour bookstore that I know of in the country: Book World, located near Yale University. It's managed to keep those hours for most of the past decade; the owner has said that business is often brisk after midnight, and that $400 sales at 4 a.m. aren't unheard-of.

Astraea will have to be lucky to reach that level. But then, many things about it are already unusual, starting with how it came to be in the first place. Norris Blanks, an Australian businessman, was flying from Dallas to New York about four years ago. "I had difficulty getting a nonstop flight, and had to stop over in Washington," he remembers. "The city looked magnificent, and I decided it would be worthwhile staying overnight."

Two years ago, Blanks moved here permanently, afflicted with a severe case of Potomac Fever. "I see Washington as an emerging world capital, a center of world focus in the '90s. I'm also enchanted with Pennsylvania Avenue -- its history and its future."

Another unlikely thing about Astraea is its name. For some reason, the names of bookstores tend toward the relentlessly prosaic. There are three places specializing in mysteries here, for example, and they all have close to the same name. Astraea, however, came out of a dream. A friend who was visiting Blanks woke in the middle of the night and the word was there.

"It felt appropriate," the owner says. "Subsequently, I found out she was the goddess of justice, and also of the heavens. Before the beginning of the new order on this plane, the new golden period, her presence or principle will be reinstated. Being very pro-Washington, I thought what a wonderful place for this reinstatement to occur -- on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol." This sounds very New Age, but Blanks says, "I think New Age is dead." Astraea's stock is basically the same as that of any general-interest bookstore.

The location of the store, on the northeast corner with 13th Street, is indeed striking; the avenue conveys a majestic sweep unsurpassed in this city. The store itself is also quite handsome, with an open space in the middle, the "International Sculpture Center," suitable for performances and readings. At 9 p.m. on July 3, a time when all the stores in the area were closed and even the food courts at the nearby Old Post Office were shutting down, Astraea actually had a few customers.

Will there be any there later? Blanks concedes that "people say it's not appropriate to open here 24 hours a day. I don't disagree. But we sat down, worked our figures out, and said let's try it. The additional costs are not substantial. And it's conceivable we'll have poetry readings at 3 in the morning, and films shown at midnight."

Books Worth Noting

AMIDST the plethora of literary prizes, many of which seem designed to honor their founders rather than the recipients, it's always a relief to see the Western States Book Awards. Founded in 1984 and presented biennially, Western States honors authors and publishers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

The prizes aren't huge ($5,000 for the publisher, $2,500 for the author), and nothing becomes a major bestseller, but a spotlight is turned on worthy works. Funding comes from several foundations, including Xerox's, and that currently controversial outfit, the National Endowment for the Arts.

The 1990 winners: John Haines's New Poems 1980-88, from Story Line Press, in poetry; The Devil in Texas by Aristeo Brito, from Bilingual Press, for fiction; and The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert by Bruce Berger in creative nonfiction.

This last is published by Breitenbush Books in Portland, Ore., and marks the third time the press has gotten a Western States Award. The 12-year-old Breitenbush was founded by four Reed College students; usually but not always its focus is on Western topics and themes.

The author was a graduate student at Berkeley when he suddenly became acutely curious about just what Crater Lake might look like in the snow. He was lost to academia, but gained a passion. His book, which has been praised by Barry Lopez and Peter Matthiessen, is filled with brief meditations on his experiences in the wild.

One sample passage, about the aftermath of camping: "If a night is to be spent en route after the recovery of vehicles I much prefer the truce of a car camp, but am occasionally overpowered by someone in a frenzy for hot water. One heads toward one of those towns that beads a highway dissolving in both directions toward nowhere, visible for miles at night as a kind of blue sunrise, luring the motorist like a species-specific animal trap."

Another current Breitenbush book is Season of Dead Water, a paperback anthology devoted to works about the Exxon oil spill in Alaska. Inspired in part by an Exxon official's statement that things like the disaster are "the cost of civilization," Helen Frost has assembled poems and prose snippets that display much sadness and some despair, but hardly ever editorialize (except for Peter Sears's wish, "May the men who did this/ boil and roll in a sea coat of oil").

Joyce Thompson writes about an impromptu demonstration in Seattle that brought together 4,000 protestors who found themselves unable to focus their anger. "What could we do, huh?" one man asks. "Exxon makes forty zillion bucks a year. Nobody here's worth over thirty grand."

Gary Osborne, chief engineer on a tugboat called in to help with the clean-up effort, wrote more than two months after the spill: "I saw a flock of seven sea gulls today, about double the number I've spotted since our arrival. This is the first time I can ever remember being anywhere on or near the sea that you could even think about being able to count the gulls."

Lost in Translation

THE LATE Philip K. Dick's novels often wrestled in a black-humored way with the problems of identity, so it's weirdly appropriate that when one of his stories was converted to the screen the producers would misspell his name. "Total Recall" is one of the most expensive films ever, but its makers still managed to spell "Philip" with two "l's." Writers often complain they're treated like dirt in Hollywood, but this is ridiculous.

Still, it's an irony that Dick -- who died in 1982 shortly before another book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, made it to the screen as "Blade Runner" -- might have appreciated. He would have been less pleased with what happened to his own work, which in spite of its pulp origins he took very seriously.

The original source of "Total Recall" was a so-so Dick story from 1966, "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." But you can't -- or at least the producers wouldn't -- reissue a short story or even a short story collection as a film tie-in. Instead the best-selling sf novelist for young teens, Piers Anthony, was hired to flesh out the story.

Admirers of Dick, who justifiably see him as a sort of home-grown Borges or Kafka, compare this to getting Danielle Steel to round out a Jane Austen fragment. Dick's books are bleakly funny but very serious, whereas the novel Total Recall contains lines like: "Lori was Woman-Plus! How had an ordinary Joe like him managed to capture such a creature?" Another hack-like touch is the car chase sequence, which begins: "It was car-chase time."

It's instructive to compare this with what happened to "Blade Runner." When the producers of that film tried to entice Dick into writing a novelization of his own novel -- they must have been worried the average reader would find the original too difficult -- he turned them down and demanded that Androids be reissued instead. It was.

For a guy who got paid $2,000 for most of his books, rejecting a Hollywood deal that promised to bring in $70,000 was no idle gesture. But when an author dies, often his artistic integrity dies with him.

In the Margin

ROUTE 66 has always been the highway closest to the nation's heart, but closer to home another road has finally gotten a well-deserved valentine. Merritt Ierley's Traveling the National Road (Overlook) is a history of what began as an Indian footpath, became under Jefferson the country's first highway, and is now Route 40. Stretching from Baltimore to Vandalia, Ill., the National Road was an important artery for the pioneers but later fell into neglect. Ierley's tribute is more history than guide, with good photographs and engravings . . .

If Jasper McKee's The Booze Theory of Civilization wasn't funded by the Distilled Spirits Council, it should have been. After considering inventors, philosophers, composers, artists and all of the presidents, McKee comes to the conclusion that, since the best of them drank, maybe liquor isn't wholly bad. What this self-published effort from San Antonio, Texas, lacks in scientific rigor it makes up for in bravado. Here, for example, is the chapter on Jimmy Carter: "We find a photograph of Carter toasting the president of Mexico." Yes, that's the whole chapter . . .

A venerable publishing name is no more. Harper & Row, whose lineage stretches back to 1817, is now called HarperCollins. The switch is a result of Harper's purchase by Rupert Murdoch's multi-national News Corporation, which has publishing imprints all over the world. One of these is Collins Publishers, an English firm; the fact that there is no space in HarperCollins indicates "two companies have become one," to quote the corporate press release. Harper & Row, by the way, had only been called that since 1962; that was the year Harper and Brothers merged with the textbook firm of Row, Peterson.