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A Passion for Print at This Book-of-the-Month Gala

Times Staff Writer

A janitor once expressed amazement at the activities at the Book-of-the-Month Club. “Nobody does any work around here,” he complained. “All you people do is sit around and read.”

Certainly it was a love of reading--of books, of words--that inspired Harry Scherman to start America’s first “of-the-month” mail-order business in 1926. At a celebration of the club’s 60th anniversary Thursday night, that same passion for print drew about 400 major wordspeople to the great marbled halls of the New York Public Library.

Mystery writers, history writers, biographers, economists, novelists, political theorists, philosophical treatise-writers, even the odd cookbook writer, etiquette specialist and expert in nutrition: Forty-four authors mixed with publishing executives, editors, literary agents and “ultimate wordsman” Alfred M. Butts, the 87-year-old inventor of Scrabble.

At one point novelist Joseph Heller played bartender, hauling out a hefty bottle of Scotch. “The choice was between doing without the drink or stooping,” Heller explained, filling the glass of yet another person. “Did you notice how many people I had to pour for?”

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At a small round table, historian/political analyst Theodore H. White sat nibbling on melted mozzarella with wife Beatrice and dear friend and fellow historian C. Vann Woodward. His own relationship to the Book-of-the-Month Club, White said, was that of “a suckling to his nurse.” After all, White said, “they took my first book, ‘Thunder Out of China,’ in 1946. And it changed my life, literally.”

White paused for the briefest moment, scrunching his face in concentration. “I think I even remember the exact day. I think it was June 15 or June 16, 1946--whereupon I bought the first car I ever owned and drove all the way across the country and back.”

From its avowedly humble beginnings as the Little Leather Library, a company that shipped miniature books inside Whitman’s chocolate Samplers, the club has proved a powerful influence on American reading habits, White said. “When they came into existence, you couldn’t even buy a book in most cities in America,” he said. “There were towns like Helena, Mont., where you couldn’t even buy a book.”

‘Nothing Better’

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Since then, of the 40,000 post offices in the United States, Book-of-the-Month Club reports that it can’t find one it hasn’t used. Having distributed 440 million books--enough to put five volumes in every American household, “they have increased the book audience in America,” White said. As a consequence, he said, Americans have come to appreciate one of life’s greater pleasures: “There’s nothing better than curling up with a good book in bed, unless it’s curling up with your wife and a good book.”

For that matter, White said he was certain that at least one other American couple might share that opinion. Once, around 1970, White remembered getting a middle-of-the-night phone call from an enthusiastic Nancy Reagan. “ ‘Ronnie and I are just lying here reading your book (‘The Making of the President, 1968'),’ ” White said the then-First Lady of California told him, “ ‘and we wanted you to know how much we’re enjoying it.’ ”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Reagan apparently had forgotten which way the time difference worked. Eleven p.m. in California was 2 a.m. in New York. Nonetheless, White said forgivingly, “believe me, this enshrines her in my heart forever.”

Nearby, novelist Toni Morrison was trading warm greetings first with Anne Johnson of Random House, next with nonfiction writer Susan Brownmiller, next with “Pilgrim of Tinker Creek” Annie Dillard. Along with Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert A. Caro and physician/philosopher Dr. Lewis Thomas, Morrison was honored with a $10,000 BOMC grant presented in each author’s name to “Give the Gift of Literacy,” a new national organization supported by publishers and booksellers to promote literacy.

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Brownmiller, renowned for her writings on rape, among other topics, said she was currently at work on a book about friendship. But as for the title, she shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know,” Brownmiller said, “that’s four years down the pike.”

While wife Joan Didion was home in California, finishing up a book of her own, John Gregory Dunne said he had just completed a novel, “Red, White and Blue,” to be published by Simon & Schuster. And what is it about? Dunne deadpanned. “It’s about 700 pages.”

During cocktails before dinner in the library’s grand Main Reading Room, Calvin Trillin allowed as how he really had no idea how the BOMC might have affected American reading habits.

“I didn’t know it had,” Trillin said. “I’m pleased if it has.”

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Still mildly miffed that none of his own books has ever been a BOMC main selection, Trillin said he had been invited as “the entertainment.” Asking his views of Americans and their books “is like asking that guy who’s passing the hors d’oeuvres.”

The Lure of Black-Tie

As the evening’s after-dinner speaker, Trillin said he had offered the club his well-known “45-minute speech about farm price supports--but they were not enthusiastic.” It was a shame, said Trillin, because that particular talk was among his favorites: “an overview of soybean pricing over the last 40 years.”

In fact, Trillin used the opportunity to talk about why he goes to black-tie events: “so I can amortize my tuxedo.” As for books, their average shelf life in America, he suggested, was “somewhere between milk and yogurt.”

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But looking out at the huge reading room, fresh flowers arranged between the reading lamps, elegantly attired guests seated in conventional wooden library chairs, writer/historian David McCullough harked back to the words of Thomas Jefferson, writing to his friend John Adams. “ ‘I cannot live without books,’ ” Jefferson confessed, “and I think most of us would agree with that.”

McCullough was there to put the club’s founding year in a kind of historical perspective. 1926 saw the appearance of “The Sun Also Rises” (not a BOMC selection), “Winnie the Pooh” (ditto) and “that great classic of all time, ‘The Little Engine That Could’ ” (definitely not a selection). In the same bellwether year, Safeway Stores was born, the Good Humor Co. came into existence, and so did “something called the National Broadcasting Co.”

‘A Very Different Time’

That period, said McCullough, “was of course a very different time from the time in which we now live. There was a Republican in the White House, the teaching of evolution was being fought in the schools and the Marines had landed in Nicaragua.”

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To his own enduring bewilderment, William Shirer has found himself the BOMC’s all-time best-selling writer, with more than 1.5 million copies of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” sold.

“I don’t understand it,” Shirer said. “It’s a long book, and it’s got millions of footnotes. There was one famous British historian--I forget his name, but he’s got about five initials before his name--who said he couldn’t read a book with that many footnotes.”

As for Shirer’s dinner companion, California transplant Marge Champion, the subject of the evening’s boycott was the main course: quail. As a “California girl,” said the third-generation native, a graduate of the Hollywood High class of 1936, she could no sooner eat the state bird than the family dog.

Most guests, however, seemed oblivious to the ecological delicacy they were devouring. Instead their focus was on another possible environmental disaster area: literature and literacy. For that, said J. Richard Munro, president and chief executive officer of the BOMC’s parent organization, Time Inc., “the Book-of-the-Month Club has helped books stay off the endangered species list--and that is worthy of celebration.”

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