Title: "The Reader's Companion: A Book Lover's Guide to...

BOOK BRIEFS

July 17, 1994|By CHRIS KRIDLER Title: "Two Stories of Prague" L Author: Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Angela Esterhammer Publisher: University Press of New England Length, price: 109 pages, $18.95 | CHRIS KRIDLER Title: "Two Stories of Prague" L Author: Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Angela Esterhammer Publisher: University Press of New England Length, price: 109 pages, $18.95,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Title: "The Reader's Companion: A Book Lover's Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge, as Chosen by the Experts"

Authors: Fred Bratman and Scott Lewis

Publisher: Hyperion

Length, price: 276 pages, $17.95 If you're the sort of person who feels guilty knowing there are unread books on the shelves of every library on the planet, including your own, you may want to hesitate before picking up )) "The Reader's Companion." Ah, the stuff of shame! There are lists in here to intimidate the most voracious reader.

The subtitle isn't quite accurate: "A Book Lover's Guide to the Most Important Books in Every Field of Knowledge, as Chosen by the Experts." Yes, there are some experts quoted in this book who did just that, but many more are off the point entirely. The digressions may be the best reason to read, or rather browse, this book. You discover inspirations (attorney William Kunstler cites "Collected Poems" by Dylan Thomas) and influences (broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts recommends, on politics, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes").

Fred Bratman and Scott Lewis came up with a "wonderful mosaic" when they asked their chosen experts for contributions to "The Reader's Companion." In light of the variety of responses, "The Hidden Library" might have been a better title. This isn't a comprehensive guide for the general reader seeking to sample the classics of every field. It is, however, an intriguing look at the books that have shaped modern thinkers' lives and the volumes that keep popping up on everyone's list. Haven't read "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Toqueville? "Huckleberry Finn"? Tsk, tsk!

A welcome aspect: The editors have retained the personal flavor of each list, touches that can be poetic or surprising. Environmentalist Denis Hayes eloquently recommends "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey: "Abbey can move even those who have never experienced the wild, or felt true aloneness, or seen up close the fire in a wolf's eyes." Among writer Jamake Highwater's books on Native Americans is the unusual choice of British novelist Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," "which taught me a great deal about the virtues of visionary, nonlinear literature by comparison to the overly applauded realist style of the dominant Western society."

A notable omission: a list of the greatest hits, which would have been a nice complement to the index.

These two stories, "King Bohush" and "The Siblings," were first published in 1899, when Rilke was 24.

At the time, he was living in Munich, looking back on Prague and his childhood there, although he had only been away from that city for a year and a half. "The aim of the book," he wrote much later, "was to come closer to my own childhood."

At the end of the 19th century, Prague's population was about 350,000; one-tenth German and the rest Czech. Roughly one-half of the German population was Jewish; the Czechs, for the most part, were Catholic. That is a terse way of putting what became an enormous collection of tensions that still exist.

These stories had not been published in English, and they are keenly translated by Angela Esterhammer, who has also written an indispensable introduction that gives the political background needed to understand them. Rilke, who died in 1926, never wanted his early work published, and one sees why he might feel self-conscious about these stories.

While they poke fun at the Prague German culture, the coffeehouse literati, the town in which "everyone bedecks himself with his joy and carries his sorrow with him too, as visibly as possible," they are two-thirds sermon and one-third memoir, with very little to hang onto in the way of characters or story or even moral. He cannot help, however, but evoke a city of dreams, which every lover of Prague will recognize in all its contradictions.

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