The Beast, the Eunuch and the Glass-Eyed Child: Television in the '80s, by Ron Powers (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $24.95). Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Ron Powers describes himself as an "anomaly": "I am old enough to retain a cultural memory anterior to television." He's watched a lot of it in the last two decades, though, and he hasn't liked much of it. In this collection of his columns from GQ magazine he fulminates against TV violence and sadism, "corporate arrogation and corporate will," the omnipresent (for a few minutes) "celebrifaces," and the "cretinous vulgarities" of Morton Downey Jr. Powers's prose is lively; his opinions unsurprising. He likes "Kate and Allie" and Bill Moyers, despises "LA Law" ("an overwrought and hard-burnished celebration of merciless careerism" and "thirtysomething" ("an overweening sanctification of the inner Self"). He sums up the '80s as the decade in which TV "finally fulfilled the worst nightmares of a half century: It devoured its host culture."
Punchlines: The Violence of American Humor, by William Keough (Paragon House, $19.95). William Keough, a professor of English at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts, argues that violence, and also sexism, racism and brutality, are essential to American humor. "It was Columbus," Keough writes, "who made perhaps the first truly American joke (the first white American joke at least) when he dubbed the natives of these isles 'Indians' and called his find 'the West Indies.' " As the preceding sentence suggests, Keough links the violence in American humor to the violence that has been part of the American experience from the white man's first attack on his Indian hosts. He analyzes the dark strains in the jokes of Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Ring Lardner, Chaplin and Keaton, Kurt Vonnegut and Lennie Bruce, among others. W.C. Fields laid it on the line. "I never saw anything funny that wasn't terrible," he said. "If it causes pain, it's funny; if it doesn't, it isn't."
The Appropriate Word: Finding the Best Way to Say What You Mean, by J.N. Hook (Addison-Wesley, $18.95). Of the making of word books there is no end -- nor need there be. Etymology, grammar, syntax, usage -- any of these can be presented in ways that are both instructive and amusing, as readers of Fowler, Safire, Newman, Morris, Evans, Curme, and Bernstein can testify. This new book by the author of The Great Panjandrum focuses on questions of usage: Hook's moderate approach to this sometimes bloody arena leads him to label certain locutions as FF (suitable for "family and friends") and others as SWE (standard written English). In his pages he makes clear the distinction between contagious and infectious and among lascivious, lecherous and licentious; he also reminds us of the proper use of like, offers guidance in using literary allusions (verify your sources), and generally conveys sensible advice about a number of vexed linguistic matters.
The Unromantic Castle, by John Summerson (Thames and Hudson, $35). This handsome, illustrated book gathers some two dozen essays and talks, drawn from the past four decades, by Britain's leading architectural historian. Best known for his work on Georgian London, Summerson is one of those admirable scholars who joins deep learning to an agreeable, plain style. Chapters cover such notables as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, Victorian architectural styles and even a theory of modern architecture. The illustrations are, naturally, of the eat-your-heart-out variety: more stately mansions and elegant rural seats than you'll find in a bumper issue of Country Life magazine.
Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship, by Anthony Grafton (Princeton, $14.95). Forgers, it would seem, have much in common with computer hackers: They start with incredible expertise in their respective fields, and then go, so to speak, creative. Grafton, a specialist at Princeton in Renaissance humanism, makes clear that the master forger must also be, in some sense, a scholar, must be as knowledgeable as those whom he is trying to fool. Indeed, most start out as serious researchers and then are led astray by a desire to fill in some historical lacunae (to support a pet theory, say) or out of a simple spirit of puckish pranksterism. This elegant monograph ranges from Porphyry through Isaac Casaubon (a name familiar to readers of Foucault's Pendulum) on to Scaliger, Chatterton and others, though its focus remains the transmission of classical texts. Or, rather, pseudo-classical texts.
Rousseau, Judge of Jean-Jacques: Dialogues, edited by Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly (Dartmouth/University Press of New England, $40). Rousseau's two best known works of autobiographical writing -- his Confessions and Reveries of a Solitary Walker -- have been frequently available in English, but not so this third, quirky work of self-exploration. These conversations between Rousseau and a Frenchman discuss the notorious works of one Jean-Jacques, with Rousseau often accusing himself of various sins, errors and shortcomings; it is little wonder that these dialogues have frequently been used as evidence for the mental breakdown of the French philosopher at the end of his career. The translation, by the editors and Judith R. Bush, reads somewhat stiffly; but this is made up for by a proper emphasis on exactness. This volume inaugurates "The Collected Writings of Rousseau," with notes and references geared to the standard French Pleiade edition. Future installments will be devoted to Rousseau's political discourses, his novel, Julie, or the New Heloise and his various writings on education.