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Paperback Originals

February 23, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

"Icould not keep myself going at all," Samuel Butler once confided to his private journal, "if I did not believe that I was likely to inherit a good average three-score and ten of immortality." Butler, a self-described "swell" of Victorian vintage and a celebrated turn-of-the-century eccentric, earned his place in English literature with his autobiographical novel, "The Way of All Flesh," and his utopian satire, "Erewhon." But his true and enduring passion was the vestpocket notebook where he collected little gems of prose, glittering but mostly semi-precious. Butler's lapidary musings are collected in The Notebook of Samuel Butler, originally edited by his friend and biographer, Henry Festing Jones, and introduced in its new edition by P. N. Furbank (Hogarth/distributed by Salem House: $8.95).

Butler was marvelously obsessive about his journal, his "quarry from which to take material from his writing," according to Jones, whose lodgings functioned as a repository for a duplicate set of the notebooks. "(H)e wrote the notes in copying ink and kept a pressed copy with me as a precaution against fire," Jones explained in his introduction to the 1912 edition. Butler, however, never bothered to draw down on his literary stockpile. "When he had written and re-written a note and spoken it and repeated it in conversation, it became so much a part of him that, if he wanted to introduce it in a book, it was less trouble to restate it again from memory than to search through his 'precious indexes' for it."

Though Butler is capable of lapsing into tired simile ("My days run through me as water through a sieve") and genteel bigotry ("I suppose an Italian peasant or a Breton, Norman or English fisherman, is about the best thing nature does in the way of men--the richer and the poorer being alike mistakes"), his "Notebooks" are a kind of one-man Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Indeed, there is hardly a subject on which Butler is without a strong opinion, a sly remark, or a cutting observation.

Reshad Feild, an Englishman who has traveled the world in search of enlightenment and settled in the thoroughly mellow precincts of Santa Cruz, calls himself not a healer but "an instrument for healing." Here to Heal (Element Books/The Great Tradition, 750 Adrian Way, San Rafael, Calif. 94903: $7.95) is Feild's autobiography, his do-it-yourself manual for "keep(ing) the life force flowing," his confession of faith in the healing powers that reside in the heart and soul: "We are here to heal," he writes, "and the acts of birth, sex and death are the keys to true freedom." Of course, Feild describes certain phenomena that may strike the more reason-bound among us as slightly sappy if not outrightly bizarre. He advocates "conscious breathing" ("Freedom lies at the exact point between the in-breath and the out-breath and at that moment, grace may enter") and "healing the land" ("Just as we need to heal and be healed, so the planet requires human beings to redeem the unnecessary suffering it has witnessed"). But I do not mean to ridicule Feild's book, which makes the profound and meaningful point that healing does not necessarily preclude physical death.

"To me death is not a mystery," he concludes. "It is a miracle, a wonderful and beautiful miracle whereby people are taken out of a world of trial and suffering, and yet, at the same time, are here with us always."

Social Graces by Larry Fink (Aperture/New Images: $17.50) is a collection of black-and-white photographs--intense, expressive and deeply evocative--that document the subtle rituals of two disparate scenes, the society benefits of New York City, and the impoverished backwater of Martins Creek, Pa. Fink confesses that his "Black Tie" photographs were prompted by "my rage against the privileged class--its abuses, voluptuous folds, and unfulfilled lives . . . . I am aware of the camera's prying aggression in the midst of flesh, attraction, repulsion, illusion." And these tumultuous emotions are evident in Fink's unforgiving photographs of gallery openings and fund-raising balls; he has a genius for capturing the oblique glance that reveals desperation and a depth of longing in the faces of his unsuspecting subjects. But, although he detects considerably more joy and exuberance in the Sabatine family of Martins Creek, Fink's photographs of their celebrations (a wedding, a child's eighth birthday party, a trip to the skating rink) display similarly grim sensibilities. But Fink insists that his photographs are motivated by "the spirit of empathy."

"There is potential for the formation of an underlying theme in how the system suppresses and distorts both the rich and the poor," Fink writes in "Social Graces," "but it is not Marx who chooses the characters in this book, it is lust, attraction and destiny."

Titles reviewed in Paperback Originals have been published in paperback only or in simultaneous paperback and hardcover editions.

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