Timeless Truths at Four for a Dollar

January 16, 1994|By DAVID SHRIBMAN

WASHINGTON — The world isn't such a bad place after all. Right now I am reading ''The Picture of Dorian Gray,'' Oscar Wilde's classic novel about conscience, character and the nature of art. (It is also about a guy who stays young even as his portrait ages). But the important thing is that this book, the only novel Wilde ever wrote, is at your bookstore this very instant for the total cost of one dollar.

This is a development with almost revolutionary implications. Just as the penny newspaper and the dime-store novel transformed America, so could a new series of paperbacks called the Dover Thrift Editions.

These are books for a buck. You can get ''Julius Caesar,'' Shakespeare's play about the moral costs of political success, or ''Macbeth,'' his treatise on power and passion. You can get ''The Playboy of the Western World,'' J.M. Synge's play about the great truth of Ireland, the inescapability of the past. You can get ''The Call of the Wild,'' Jack London's story about animal nature and human nature, or even ''Beowulf,'' a book that no one has ever read at any price.

And now it can be told: You can buy ''The Prince,'' Machiavelli's essay on politics, for less than you spend on the Sunday paper, and come away knowing more about Washington than you'll learn from the entire casts of the Capital Gang and the McLaughlin Group, the staff of the American Spectator and, dare I say it, all the faithful correspondents in the Washington bureaus of American newspapers.

With small volumes measuring about five inches by eight, Dover has made scores of classics within everyone's reach, while smashing the argument that these books (many of them admittedly written by dead white guys but worth reading nonetheless) are elitist.

''When you think of what else you can buy for a buck, this is astonishing,'' says David Scott Kastan, the Shakespeare scholar Columbia University. ''You can't buy a half-gallon of milk, a box of cookies or a magazine, but you can buy 'Hamlet' or 'Hedda Gabler.' ''

Now the greats are truly accessible, the equivalent of having Magic Johnson at your neighborhood basketball court, or Bill Clinton at the local McDonald's. Or having C. Everett Koop stop by the house to give the kids a strep test and to check for ear infections, or having Ross Perot pop by your local selectmen's meeting. Actually it is quite a bit better than that.

You're wondering how Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy and Guy de Maupassant suddenly became known as cheap authors, and so was I. So I did a little digging at holiday time and discovered that all these books are in the public domain. That means nobody has to pay royalties to reprint them. All you need to infect the world with inexpensive books is a small army of editors, typesetters and free-lance proof-readers. ''We wouldn't keep doing it if we weren't making money,'' says Irene McCoy, Dover's publicity manager.

So let me linger for just a moment on what you can get from just one dollar, if you choose to invest it in ''The Picture of Dorian Gray'' instead of in a Diet Coke at the Ground Round or someplace, or by having one fewer topping at Pizza Hut (hold the garlic, please).

This is the story of a man who let pass from his lips ''a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and [his] portrait grow old.'' As a result, his painted image was ''seared with the lines of suffering and thought'' while he kept ''all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood.'' Ultimately it is also the story of a man who could do what we all would profit to be able to do: to see ourself as the world does.

For that dollar (and here I apologize if I sound a little like Telly Savalas, extolling the virtues of a credit card that gives you really great discounts at all the best clubs in Vegas), you also get many great truths, which if purchased alone would be a bargain at 25 cents each:

''Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives'' (page 53). ''There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating -- people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing'' page 62). ''Good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws'' (page 73). ''To be popular one must be a mediocrity'' (page 144).

You can reduce the individual costs of these truths (all the way down to 20 cents apiece) if you buck political acceptability and add this one, from page 74: ''Never trust a woman who wears mauve.''

9- So go ahead. Spend a buck. Live a little.

David Shribman is Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.

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