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Now in Paperback

January 26, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

The Information Please Almanac (Houghton Mifflin: $5.95), The Reader's Digest Almanac and Yearbook (Random House: $8.50), The World Almanac and Book of Facts (Newspaper Enterprise Assn.: $5.95). American almanacs have been in search of a mission ever since farmers stopped using them for setting clocks, planting crops and passing time. TV and magazines have inherited the latter role, and yearbooks endeavoring to create new roles, such as The People's Almanac (last published in 1984), have been criticized by almanac aficionados who don't want analysis in their "book of facts." Yet by striving to remain "objective," these newly released 1986 editions sometimes collect data indiscriminately, becoming grab bags of trivia rather than handy reference guides or coherent, enlightening overviews of the nation and summaries of the news. The section on nations in the best-selling World Almanac, for example, tells us next to nothing about social or political currents, and is uneven: Japan is covered in eight paragraphs, for instance; India, in 24. On the other hand, a fascinating time-line of world history in the World Almanac follows developments with maps, charts and graphs. Highlights of the Information Please Almanac include a "guide to growing older," a section on awards (from the Academy to the Nobel) and extensive excerpts from the U.S. Constitution and other government documents. Many lists in the almanac, nevertheless, are sketchy and incomplete, especially a new guide to "top-rated" educational software and a "glossary of political terms" (only 15 expressions are listed). Lesser known but more instructive is the Reader's Digest Almanac, which gives a relatively comprehensive overview of legislation passed in Congress in 1985, summarizes the year's news and lists words reportedly coined in 1984, from "acid fog" and "Atari democrat" to "ultralight" and "videotex."

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing (Carroll & Graf: $8.95). Even the most engaging police dramas--heroes narrowly escaping gunfire, heroines stumbling just as the attacker gains ground--can't match the thrills in this story about Sir Ernest Shackleton's attempt to cross the Antarctic in 1914. In fact, nature, as this exciting 1959 book demonstrates, would make the ideal Hollywood screenwriter, for it gives adventurers the skills necessary to triumph over majestic challenges, then humbles them before the sense of accomplishment can become routine. A seasoned explorer, Shackleton is well aware of nature's charade, so, when strong southerly winds seem to jet his ship effortlessly toward its goal near the bottom of the world, he cautions his 27-member crew with a story about a mouse living in a tavern. The mouse finds a leaky barrel of beer, Shackleton recounts, and, after drinking all he can hold, sits up, twirls his whiskers and looks around arrogantly. "Now then," he says, "where's that damned cat?" The cat, in this case, is a grinding, hungry pack of ice, and, not surprisingly, it drives through the ship's sides only days after Shackleton recounts the parable. "Endurance" chronicles how the crew survived after becoming stranded without radios, more than a thousand miles away from civilization. It is a tale of perseverance, but there also are practical jokes (putting spaghetti in the biologist's formaldehyde jars) and wonder (passing through a winter fairyland where needlelike crystals sparkle down through twilight air).

If I'm So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake?, Joan C. Harvey with Cynthia Katz (Pocket: $3.50). John thinks any expression of pride will be punished by a humiliating failure. Paige attributes her success to Herculean efforts and constant work, not to her ability. Kerry believes that her compulsive, ritualistic worrying ensures positive results. While you and I might think that John, Paige and Kerry could use a mammoth boost in self-confidence, the authors believe that they are suffering from a new social disease, exotically dubbed "the Impostor Phenomenon" or "IP." To prove their point, the authors cite studies that show that many high-achieving college students attribute their success to something other than their intellectual capabilities. Yet even these studies don't suggest that "IP" is a new phenomenon, and acute cases--black females, for instance, are especially unsure about their intellectual prowess--might be more indicative of longstanding social problems.

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