For all you readers, here's the pick of the literate

November 04, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Do you have a coffee table in need of decoration? If so, you're in luck.

Because occasionally, and this is one of those times, the bookstores are crowded with must-buy books that -- and here's the beautiful part -- nobody actually expects you to read.

You know the kind of book I mean -- one like "A Brief History of Time," the physics-is-fun page-turner that sold more copies than "Gone With the Wind." Personally, I'm waiting for the movie.

Then there's "Satanic Verses," which put Salman Rushdie on the best-seller list and most-wanted list simultaneously. Unfortunately, the book, while certainly important, is tough reading, along the lines of, say, the Rosetta Stone.

Now, there are at least three such tomes in your bookstore, not including the pope's new best seller, which I believe is entitled, "And Does the Pope Wear a Funny Hat?" Any of them would look great on a bookshelf. Or, if you don't have a bookshelf, the books can double as TV trays.

I've bought all three. Of course, I don't intend to read any of them. But I have read enough about them to become what I like to call cocktail-party-proof, meaning I can discuss the books without fear of contradiction, since nobody else has read them either.

My must-buy list:

* First, and foremost, is "The Bell Curve." It's co-authored by Charles Murray, the darling of the right wing, and some Harvard professor who unfortunately died before he got his shot on "Nightline."

This book will have a huge impact on social policy, so it's important to know something about it. Here's what I know:

The point of the book is that IQ is inherited and that many people are dumb. Many of these dumb people are poor people. And poor, dumb people are a nuisance, unless you need somebody to harvest fruit or work in a sweatshop.

And since IQ is destiny, the warm-hearted authors argue there's no point in having social-welfare programs because you simply encourage dumb people to have more dumb babies. This lowers the aggregate IQ, meaning we'll fall behind Japan, where everyone is nearly as smart as George Will.

"The Bell Curve" has been denounced as racist, misleading, simplistic and extremely long. To give the authors credit, though, before each chapter they offer a three-page summary. It's like having a built-in Cliffs Notes. Unfortunately, for me to understand it, they'd need a built-in Classic Comics.

* The new Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas book is called "Strange Justice." The best thing about having the book is that it allows you to say the words "pubic hair" without being offensive. I heard the words on "Nightline" said by Ted Koppel himself.

Some people will start the book, thinking it's all sex and sleaze. Then they'll find out it's about government incompetence. Who needs a book when we've got actual elections coming?

The authors do quote women other than Hill as saying Thomas talked suggestively to them. One of these women said Thomas' apartment was once covered with Playboy centerfolds. This was apparently seen as a negative thing.

The most disturbing news I learned -- I saw this on a TV report about the book -- was that just prior to the hearings, Sen. John Danforth, who was Thomas' sponsor, led Thomas and his wife in prayer -- in Danforth's bathroom. I'm not making this up.

They held hands -- in the bathroom -- while listening to a tape of "Onward Christian Soldiers." I'm sorry. I've got this mental picture of somebody saying, "Hey, I've got to use the bathroom. Anybody need to pray before I go in there?"

* Finally, there is "The Western Canon," which I initially thought was about bringing heavy artillery to the Wild West. Instead, it's a book about books.

It was written by Harold Bloom, who lists about 800 books that you should buy. Where he and I differ is that he thinks you should also read them. He says putting these books on your shelf -- as actual examples, "The Prose Edda" by Snorri Sturluson and "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker" by Tobias Smollett -- is not enough. Every person who doesn't read them might as well be on the wrong end of the bell curve.

Let me quote from the book: "Aesthetic authority, like aesthetic power, is a trope or figuration for energies that are essentially solitary rather than social." I can see you rushing to bookstores now.

Where I'm rushing is to put this baby back on the shelf.

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