The Dream of Utopia

WITH THE demise of communism in Eastern Europe, now is an excellent time to consider why it didn't work as the social engineers planned. Socialism was advocated and embraced by men and women of good will who had personally experienced the ravages of 19th-century laissez-faire capitalism. To many of the most thoughtful and caring of them, a centrally administered, rationally organized political-industrial system was the key to the perfect society.

Out of this mindset came a remarkable book, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887. One of the bestsellers of the 1890s and one of the most influential works of American fiction, it is perhaps even more telling today. In it, Bellamy predicted a new social order, a socialist utopia, where everyone works joyfully in the Industrial Army. There are no social problems, slums, crime, corruption or even dissent. Citizens order standard commodities from warehouses that fulfill all material wants. The arts, of course, enjoy a golden age.

With hindsight offered by the totalitarianisms of Hitler and Stalin, we can see that the good intentions of thinkers like Bellamy spawned generations of abominations and atrocities. His book, available in a Penguin paperback, is a charming and classic American look at how these societies work in theory, if not in practice. KEN MOSKOWITZ Arlington GOLDILOCKS

THE FUNNIEST account of a gold-digger must surely be Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. Written originally as a serial in Harper's Bazaar and published in book form in 1925, it chronicles the doings of a "Professional Lady," Lorelei Lee.

Lorelei is short on brains but long on talent for "intreeging" the opposite sex, particularly those members of it with money who shop at Tiffany's. She is a genuine naif but has the absolute conviction that women were born to wear diamonds and men were born to provide them. Despite doubts about exactly what is a "professional lady," the reader ends up finding Lorelei fascinating and likable.

The novel is the story of Lorelei's education through her gentleman friends, a European tour (Paris is "devine") and reading the classics. Her encounter with Conrad is particularly successful: "I have always liked novels about ocean travels ever since I posed for Mr. Christie for the front cover of a novel about ocean travel by McGrath because I always say that a girl never really looks as well as she does aboard a steamship, or even a yacht."

The only disadvantage to reading this novel is that others in the room, involved with their own books, may tire of hearing quote after wonderful quote read aloud. LAURA FARR Washington

Bugs

AFTER ALL these years, Paul de Kruif's 1926 work, Microbe Hunters, the history of the early searches for the causes of bacterial diseases, can still be read with pleasure. The book is really about people. It is about Anton Leeuwenhook, the Dutchman who gazed through his homemade microscope and happened upon an invisible zoo of "wretched beasties." You can share his excitement as he calls to his wife after peering at a drop of water under his new microscope, "Come here! Hurry! There are little animals in this rainwater . . . Look! See what I have discovered."

Another person is Louis Pasteur who discovered the technique of rabies vaccination and at one time considered giving 14 injections to every one of Paris's 2.5 million dogs. The story of Robert Koch and his search for the tubercle bacillus is particularly interesting because he confronted many doubters of his work -- like the scientist who drank a test tube with enough cholera bacilli to infect a village, yet was unaffected. "See?" he said. "Germs are of no account in cholera."

Microbe Hunters (available in a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback edition) reads like a great and exciting battle, whose heroes are the great scientists, "the curious explorers and fighters of death." The book harkens back to a period when disease after disease fell before conquering science and it seemed that the time would soon come when all diseases known to man would be eradicated. ROBERT LEE WILLIAMS Bowie

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