Hasta la vista, Gutenberg

Russell Baker

July 27, 1993|By Russell Baker

EVERY YEAR promptly on the dot of the summer solstice, we bookish folk put down Balzac, Hawthorne, Ivan Turgenev and Virginia Woolf and pick up our summer reading, and this year my summer reading has left me tickled pink.

Yes, obviously I've read and been bewitched by "Tickled Pink," Maggie Maxwell's ingenious self-help book on how to cultivate gloriously glowing summer skin color now that we all know sunburn is even grimmer news than sidestream smoke. Maxwell's "299 ways to tickle like a pro" include a few that may make you blush if you're not a regular TV fiend or moviegoer, but as the book roguishly notes, "Nobody ever got skin cancer from a blush."

Maggie Maxwell, incidentally, is not a woman, but a computer which publishes under several dozen pen names. One week in the summer of 1992 every book on the New York Times's best-seller list had been written by this remarkable machine, the construction of two 12-year-old hackers.

The story of that amazing merchandising feat is delightfully told in "Me and Willard Scott," the computer's first-person account of a triumphant book-selling tour that subjected it to over 300 television appearances to promote its incredibly successful bodice-ripper, "The Widow From Hell."

In telling its story the machine, writing under the name Edwina, lets the reader in on plenty of inside dirt about life on the book tour. Would you believe, for instance, that though all three network breakfast shows serve publicity-seeking authors coffee that "isn't fit to drink," it doesn't discourage these inky peddlers from returning again and again?

Let's look at another form of unlife: Have you absolutely had it up to here with books about near-death experiences? I sure had. That's why I cringed when a friend gave me her copy of "Flat-Out Death," the story of a family of nine -- children, parents and grandparents -- who experienced death itself for six weeks.

It won me immediately with its good-humored opening about the family's troubles with lawyers who insisted that you just can't come back after six weeks of death and recover property that's been willed away.

Most of the family found a lot to like about "the other side," as

they call it, though Grandfather was outraged to find that hardly anybody spoke English and is now lobbying Congress to make English the official language of the dead.

Here's another winner: "Bop a Libber, Bop a Lib," by Peck Peddicord. It's guaranteed to give you 1,001 laughs even if you're not a fan of Peck's bellicose radio call-in show. As you know if you've heard the show, Peck Peddicord baits liberals and feminists with colorful abuse, which provokes at least one a day to phone and insult him on the air.

He then invites the irate caller to meet him on a street corner after the show so they can "duke it out." His book is rife with amusing anecdotes about liberal and feminist "soreheads" who actually showed up for street-corner fisticuffs and about the many interesting stand-ins Peck sent to deal with them.

Typical of the fun is the story of the time Peck once deputized then-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson to represent him in a street-corner dust-up with a militant feminist. Tyson let her last three rounds before putting her out.

Everybody, of course, loves a Kennedy book, and there hasn't been a really juicy new one for several weeks, so the good news for summer readers is "Kennedy Rot." Its author is Ethelred Slung, a pseudonym. The author wanted to conceal his identity, according to his publisher, because he would be ashamed for his friends and family to know he was "capable of writing such tripe."

That's right, summer readers: tripe! Genuine Kennedy tripe! And how we love it. What would a Kennedy book be if it were tripe-free? In this one the pseudonymous Slung exploits the delicious idea of asking thousands of grocery shoppers to reveal their fantasies about the most unspeakable thing ever done, or likely to be done, by the Kennedy they most like to fantasize about.

Obviously we don't learn anything new about Kennedys, but what we learn about the mind of the American grocery shopper makes "Kennedy Rot" well worth its $35 price tag. Of course it's possible the pseudonymous Slung invented all these hair-raising interviews to titillate summer readers. That's literatainment.

Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.

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