Irina, a young Soviet graduate student, returned to the Moscow book fair every day last week, each time picking up her place in "Solstice," a new novel by Joyce Carol Oates. By today, when the week-long fair closed, Irina had completed Oates' 15th novel, the 15th one she had read.

Even if most of the thousands of Soviets who visited the fifth biennial International Moscow Book Fair lacked Irina's diligence, a startling number shared her zeal for books by and about Americans.

Books on American literature, history and culture were displayed widely at the fair for the first time since 1979, when the Association of American Publishers began a six-year boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the treatment of some dissident Soviet writers.

Thousands of Soviet visitors to the fair seemed eager to catch up on their reading.

Some traveled more than 2,000 miles, and most waited in lines for up to four hours, revealing a hunger for news from the outside world and a lack of any other means to satisfy it, besides articles in the Soviet media. AAP representative Jack Mccrae said, "The interest in finding out what has been going on in America in the past four years was overwhelming."

Soviet officials say that 100 countries exhibited at the fair in hundreds of stalls in Moscow's permanent Exhibit of Economic Achievements. But the booths representing American publishers, including the AAP, New Jersey-based distributors Baker and Taylor and the New York-based Association of Jewish Book Publishers, attracted some of the biggest crowds, who braved long waits for a glance through such books as "Andy Warhol," "The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents" or "The Fan's Guide to Pro Basketball."

The AAP, which displayed "Solstice" and 312 other selections from U.S. publishers, gave away 700 of its catalogues each hour during the fair, a spokesman for the organization said. At least two Moscow libraries offered to buy the entire collection of 1,800 books Baker and Taylor exhibited, valued at $50,000, according to a company representative.

By far the most popular volumes in the American booths were devoted to Americana: "Rock Stars," by Timothy White, with a picture of a grimacing Mick Jagger on its cover, "Norman Rockwell -- 332 Magazine Covers" or "American Photography Showcase," which many Soviets flipped through, photographing every page.

Many of the American publishers were surprised that more controversial books on themes such as race relations or the Vietnam war or books critical of the American system attracted so few readers. Bernard Levinson, president of the Association of Jewish Book Publishers, said, "They seemed more interested in collecting information."

And how. Like Irina, hundreds of Soviets returned to the American booths every day of the fair, with a packed lunch and a good pair of reading glasses. Some stood copying entire chapters into their notebooks from books such as Maximillian's "Atlas of the Holocaust," Levinson said.

The books displayed were not for sale to the public. Many publishers reported that books were missing, though, and guards searched most of the visitors to the fair as they left the pavilions.

Books displayed by Israeli publishers, who with 3,000 volumes were among the bigger exhibitors, also attracted large crowds. Most of the Israeli books were published in Hebrew, and the stalls were filled with Russians speaking Hebrew and Yiddish.

Catalogues put out by the Israeli publishers and the Association of Jewish Book Publishers were popular giveaways. The catalogues, in addition to listing books, included cultural information, such as songs, recipes and biographies of some Jewish historical figures.

The largest country display was the massive exhibition by Soviet publishers, with 20,000 volumes. It was a major attraction.

Representatives from Baker and Taylor told journalists that none of their books had been confiscated by Soviet officials. But word leaked to western diplomats that several of the books from their exhibit had been withheld, including "Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe," "History of Vietnamese Communism" and other books from the California-based Hoover Institute Press. Publishers from Israel also reported that about 200 of their volumes were held by Soviet authorities, and British publishers said that at least 40 of their books, mostly devoted to history prior to 1917, had been withheld.