THE GOLDEN AGE IS IN US: Journeys & Encounters, 1987-1994 by Alexander Cockburn (Verso: $24.95; 434 pp.). Soon after Alexander Cockburn's mother died in 1989, a non-fan wrote him saying "I was very happy to hear the news of your mother's death," adding the Biblical quotation: "And when the wicked perish there is joy." Cockburn, columnist for the Nation and unrepentant Marxist, probably has the highest hate-mail-per-reader ratio in journalism, but he hasn't published this book to answer enemies: He quotes much correspondence here, certainly, but most of it comes from friends, colleagues and followers, and provides food for thought rather than for self-justification. "The Golden Age is in Us" is not a collection of previously published work but "the journal of a working life"--diary entries, article notes, letters, musings--and it proves, surprisingly, to be of greater interest than Cockburn's standard journalistic rants, which are often marred by combative posturing. His concerns are the same--everyday outrages, such as the mating dogs shot dead so they couldn't be photographed alongside Ronald Reagan's Air Force One, and ongoing cultural crimes, such as Walt Disney's "caramelizing the frontier imagination"--but more effectively addressed in this casual context, supported by Cockburn's extensive reading, conversation and correspondence. Sometimes it's only from the radical fringe that you can learn of the Channel Islands' Nazi collaboration during their World War II occupation; or that former Interior Secretary James Watt, by pushing Sierra Club membership to major-league levels, may have defanged it by making the organization prey to direct-mail professionals and membership-maintenance advice. Speaking of advice, here's some for Cockburn: split. How many other California residents were living near Watsonville for 1989's Bay Area earthquake, Eureka for the 6.7 Northern California temblor of 1992 and Topanga for last year's San Fernando shaker? Hey Alex: Maybe there's a reason your bust of Robespierre didn't survive Loma Prieta.

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