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Clifton Fadiman, 80, Loves Language for the Pun of It

March 24, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA — Clifton Fadiman is known around the world as a versatile and accomplished man of letters--essayist, critic, anthologist, editor. But he makes no claim to distinguished literary achievement. He calls himself merely "an odd job man."

Erudite and energetic at 80, blue eyes flashing as he speaks in a rich baritone, Fadiman each day faces an imposing array of odd jobs, all connected to his love of language. A disciplined and determined reader who averages 80 pages an hour, he estimates that he has read perhaps 25,000 books in the last 75 years.

Fadiman is also a busy writer. He is putting the final touches on a two-book set of "The World Treasury of Children's Literature," for ages 9 to 14, to be published in September; a previous two-volume set, for ages 4 to 8, was published late in 1984 and, despite a $40 price tag, it continues to be a major seller. Fadiman selected the stories and wrote an inspiring introduction--aimed at children--as well as biographical notes about each of the authors.

Among other current odd jobs:

--He commutes from his home in Santa Barbara to New York every three weeks, because he is the ranking member of the Book-of-the-Month Club's panel of five judges. Fadiman has helped to select the club's books for 41 years, and is now responsible for choosing the main selection each month, a task for which he reads two or three books a week. He views that process as work but reads at least an equal number for pleasure.

--He serves on the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, where the odd job, in his words, is "to decide large questions of emphasis with respect to a given field, or to suggest radical revisions in some large important article." He also is author of the Britannica's entry on the history of children's literature, a major survey of the subject.

--He is compiling an anthology of short stories, for which he is writing 63 commentaries and an introduction.

--He is compiling an anthology of historical and literary anecdotes, which he terms "an appropriate odd job for my anecdotage."

--He writes and delivers a weekly essay, "Uncommontary," on First Edition, a PBS series about books.

--He is also a member of Mortimer Adler's Paideia group, which is involved in an ambitious program to reform American education.

Fadiman's keen interest in literature is rooted in personal experience and in a lifelong belief that "the imagination recognizes no closed season."

He began reading at the age of 4. "It was just a question of becoming familiar with 26 letters and putting them together," he said recently. "It can be done in a couple of days. When I opened and read the first page of a book for the first time, I felt this was remarkable--that I could learn something very quickly that I could not have learned any other way.

"I grew bug-eyed over the miracle of language. How could a few punctuation marks plus words made out of 26 letters be put together so as to create images of people, animals, stories, landscapes, streets, towns and even ideas? Here I was, a rather dull boy looking at an unopened book. Then within a short time the dull boy found he was entertained, amused, saddened, delighted, mystified, scared, dreamy, puzzled, astonished, held in suspense--all depending on what was in those pages."

Fadiman is the son of Russian immigrants who "despite their efforts," he said, "were handicapped by having been born in another country." Recalling his early years, Fadiman said he developed "a passionate interest in language. I determined at a very early age to read and speak at least as well as my best teachers did, to speak in complete sentences, to have them grammatically correct, to have them follow one upon the other in reasonable sequence, to enunciate and pronounce clearly so that I could be understood."

An Early Love

As a boy Fadiman's love of reading was readily apparent to others: He walked to and from the public library, a two-mile round trip, holding a book in front of his face, and he developed a sure instinct for stepping off and on curbs without diverting his eyes from the page.

He began working after school in Brooklyn when he was 10. At first there were deliveries for his father, who was a druggist, and errands for a neighborhood butcher. At 14 he worked summers for an insurance company, where he operated an adding machine. "When you're poor," he said recently, "you survive as best you can. You take whatever comes along."

He majored in English at Columbia University, and during those years "I never worked less than eight hours a day, just like many other poor kids." Some chores were routine, like washing dishes, waiting on tables, sorting mail at the post office.

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