BOSTON -- This has been a year for the books, if you don't take your literature too literally.
The formerly genteel publishing world that once talked of books with reverence, now talks of them as ''product'' and worse yet, as ''merch'' -- as in ''merchandise.'' The bookstores are turning into virtual stores, as on-line Pac-Men such as Amazon.com are gobbling up business from the book chains that gobbled up business from the independents.
Meanwhile, the single biggest supporter of public libraries turns out to be a software mogul, Bill Gates. And the one true believer in getting the public to read is a TV talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey.
I don't join in the snotty complaints about Oprah's Book Club. As an all-too-frequent flier, she's saved many a cross-country flight of mine from the clutches of the airport bookshelves. In among the Danielle Steeles and John Grishams, you can now find a Wally Lamb and Jacquelyn Mitchard. I regard that as a social service.
But now it is time for the annual reading list offered in this space -- not Ellen's Book Club, but rather a quirky, idiosyncratic look at some of the books I read and liked.
Let me begin with Carolyn Heilbrun. I regard it as great good fortune that she's riding ahead of me, like some humanistic AAA Guide, laying out the territory of aging. In ''The Last Gift of Time,'' she writes about her 60s without sentimentality, but with honesty and wisdom. ''The greatest oddity of one's sixties,'' she says, ''is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. . . . The piercing sense of 'last time' adds intensity, while the possibility of 'again' is never quite effaced.''
Saul Bellow's new novel is as spare and elegant as Ms. Heilbrun's essays are direct and home-grown. So it's notable that the same sense of ''last time'' hovers over the 60-something character of ''The Actual.'' This man's emotional life -- his love of Amy -- has been lived almost wholly in the imagination. Now he wavers before the possibility of taking a risk.
The risk of caring
To Anne Lamott, every day of parenting, every act of caring has a risk. Her novel is written with the same controlled excess as her nonfiction. In ''Crooked Little Heart,'' a recovering alcoholic mother and a tennis-playing daughter are querulous and brave fellow travelers through adolescence. This mother loves her daughter, writes Ms. Lamott, ''with a desperation, with heartsickness, with a kind of lust, and she saw how vulnerable Rosie was.'' She saw ''the meanness of the world aquiver with menace.''
Two other books of mothers and children encompass that love and menace. One is Jane Hamilton's novel, ''A Map of the World.'' In one inattentive moment, this mother's family life with its exquisitely drawn minor irritations turns tragic. The child of her best friend drowns and her whole mapped world is blown away.
The other is Margaret Moorman's exploration of what it truly meant for her to have and give up a child at 16. She is still ''Waiting to Forget.'' This is required reading for those who believe that adoption is the easy alternative.
As an antidote to mothers and menace, as just plain fun, accompany Alex Witchel on her excellent adventures with mommy, ''the human Swiss army knife.'' In ''Girls Only,'' she admits to being a few decades late in the process of ''separation.'' Anyway, she writes gamely, separating ''seems to me a disloyal process.''
This may be the year of the memoir, but Caroline Knapp's unadorned and unaccusing tale of alcoholism, is dubbed: ''Drinking: A Love Story.'' Unlike the two-fisted drinking memoirs of male writers, Ms. Knapp is layered and honest about the devastating appeal of pouring herself ''literally into another personality.''
From France comes an allegory of a very different metamorphosis. In this Gallic romp -- or rant -- a luscious young woman turns into a sow -- the worst insult in the Francophone world. Marie Darrieussecq's ''Pig Tales,'' is one part feminism, one part politics and all parts French.
John Wayne, however, is all parts American. If he didn't exist we would have invented him. Indeed in ''John Wayne's America,'' Garry Wills describes how he was invented out of Marion Morrison and how ''we are entangled . . . by the particular definition he gave to being American.''
Ever since Carol Shields' ''The Stone Diaries'' came out, I started back through her earlier work. This year I happened upon ''Happenstance,'' a 1980 he said/she said tale of a married couple on a rare weekend apart. The two stories literally begin at either book cover and collide intriguingly in the middle.
I've also been reading forward. In ''Dancing with Mister D,'' Bert Keizer, a Dutch physician, has written about life and dying among the terminally ill in a large Amsterdam nursing home. This is fodder for both sides of the debate about assisted death. He frets about suffering, about terminating a life, and most of all about care. ''A dying person,'' he writes, ''doesn't wrestle with Death as Proust says, but with a crease in the sheets that makes him uncomfortable or with the bothersome light in the corridor. You can die without realizing it.''
Finally, ''The Time Bind,'' Arlie Hochschild's take on the family-work crisis. She writes: ''The idea of more time for family life seems to have died, gone to heaven and become an angel of an idea.'' Good food for thought in the hammock. If, of course, you have the time.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 7/08/97