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End Papers

August 18, 1985|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

With this entry, "Endpapers" ends. It may return some day, but the date is not now to be named. I have enjoyed writing it for these first six months of my tenure as book editor, but I conclude, a little reluctantly, that the interests of The Book Review will be better served if I spend more time choosing books for other writers and less time writing about them myself. I might add, lest there be any whisper of censorship, that I take this decision unprompted.

How are books chosen for review? No question to a book editor is more predictable, and none is more in order. The selection process is a kind of panel discussion inside a single mind. I take the occasion of this last column to illustrate it both because the question is so frequent and because the time I will now not spend on "Endpapers" will be spent thus.

Last June Knopf published a book by Albert Rosenfeld entitled "Prolongevity II." The "II" of the title is an unusually clear indication that this is a second, revised edition. One count, then, against a fresh review: Second editions are rarely all that different from first editions.

The subject of both editions of "Prolongevity," however, is aging: what science knows about its causes and what medicine is beginning to do about its ravages. A coined word, the title elides prolonging and longevity. Now, this is a field in which advances are rapid, and the first edition of Rosenfeld's book appeared fully 10 years ago. After the lapse of 10 years, even a straight reprint may on occasion be reviewed as if it were a new book. So, the "II" need not count against "Prolongevity II." But how important is its topic?

In any brief period, certain topics force themselves on our attention. Even mediocre books on these topics win review attention if they arrive early, and better books are received eagerly. Thus, in economics, the American budget deficit is currently inescapable; and Joseph Granville's forthcoming book, "The Warning," which predicts a depression starting in 1987, is one of two or three nearly automatic assignments during the weeks ahead. Within medicine, does Rosenfeld have an equally compelling topic in his "Prolongevity II"?

No, he does not. The medical topic of the hour, if there is one, is not aging but AIDS. Aging is the very opposite of a new or urgent problem. And yet, as our population ages, the number of readers interested in new research on it is surely likely to be growing. Enter one half-count, then, against "Prolongevity" for not being headline material, but enter one to its credit for having a substantial and identifiable constituency.

But a further objection arises. Eternal youth . . . during the centuries, has any quest attracted more cranks? From Ponce de Leon to "Cocoon," the laughable, lamentable parade of magic fountains, magic pools, miracle drugs and miracle diets is unbroken. Rosenfeld's title has a faintly faddish sound. Sylvester Stallone, if he has accomplished nothing else, has rendered Roman numerals unsuitable for adult use. Is Rosenfeld's "II" anything more than the latest float in the immortality parade?

Leaving Rosenfeld himself aside for the moment, his publisher is not one known for crank books, and the reputations of publishers do vary. Knopf, I am respectful enough to believe, would not have published Jan Rorvik's "In His Own Image: The Cloning of a Man," the scandal of a few years back. In areas in which no book review editor can trust his own judgment, an author is well served, at review time, by a publisher's decades-long investment in intellectual integrity. Count one, therefore, courtesy of Knopf's still healthy reputation, for "Prolongevity" as a serious book on a sometimes frivolous topic.

Rosenfeld himself is a science writer rather than a scientist, and certification for the former designation is a little looser than for the latter. However, as former science editor for Life and Saturday Review, he is at the top of his profession; he even holds an adjunct professorship in the department of human biological chemistry and genetics at the University of Texas. His credentials, in short, do not trouble; they reassure.

Granted then that "Prolongevity" seems eminently reviewable, is it the only new book on the subject? Is there no wholly new book that might be better than Rosenfeld's? And given limited review space, should that book, if there is one, get the nod?

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