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February 23, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People, 1939-1945, Geoffrey Perrett (University of Wisconsin: $13.95). The author looks at the triumph--World War II unified the nation and bolstered our belief in democracy--without becoming wistful: This isn't another study contrasting the unity and high morale during war with the fragmentation and uncertainty of the present. We might envision a time of domestic tranquillity, writes Geoffrey Perrett, a social historian, but, in fact, public debate over social, political and economic issues actually intensified during the war; debate in the early 1940s, Perrett says, even laid the groundwork for major social and political revolutions in the next two decades. By boosting the faith of Americans in their nation, Hitler's challenge encouraged public control over domestic policy, thus strengthening democracy. Perrett doesn't clearly point out that this message is as disturbing as it is encouraging: Are there no other ways to strengthen our sense of national community? More sober realizations, however, are explored in the author's 1979 book, "A Dream of Greatness: The American People 1945-1963," which, in part, looks at crises such as McCarthyism to show that the American people can indeed lose consciousness of their own history.

Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture, Dwight MacDonald (De Capo: $9.95). Defining the purpose behind his work as a cultural critic for the New Yorker, the Partisan Review and other eclectic magazines, Dwight MacDonald was characteristically direct: There are two cultures in the United States, he writes in this 1962 collection, "one for the masses and the other for the classes. I am for the latter." Yet MacDonald, as John Simon writes in the introduction, was not an elitist "of the lazy sort who content themselves with basking in the highness of their brows." Even when defending "high culture," MacDonald's writing remained accessible to the masses. Instead of branding popular thought muddled, intransigent and simple-minded (adjectives he believed to be accurate), MacDonald patiently pointed out the dangers in a society in which facts crowd out arguments, the Bible gets updated to reflect contemporary ideals and the English language is adulterated.

The Natural Mind: An Investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, Andrew Weil (Houghton Mifflin: $7.95). While this 1972 book didn't start "a revolution in consciousness that will transform society," as the author had hoped, it did sell 150,000 copies, spreading Andrew Weil's conviction that "ordinary waking consciousness is 'normal' only in the strict sense of 'statistically most frequent': There is no connotation of 'good,' 'worthwhile,' or 'healthy.' " Weil's superiors at the National Institute for Mental Health received this message with somewhat less enthusiasm than his readers, however, and his research project at the time--studying the effects of marijuana--was terminated. Weil, in turn, criticized the institute for failing to point out that alcohol and cigarettes can be as dangerous as drugs. Weil, nevertheless, only grinds his ax occasionally in "The Natural Mind." Weil's message, for the most part, combines self-help and philosophy. Everyone needs to experience different states of consciousness, Weil writes, referring to the fantasies of children or the adult search for ways of escaping everyday reality, for what H. G. Wells called "Doors in the Wall . . . art and religion, carnivals and saturnalia, dancing and listening to oratory." Drugs, Weil insists, are only one type of "door . . . having their own risks and limitations. . . . Once we realize the importance and value of other states of consciousness, we can begin to teach people, particularly the young, how to satisfy their needs without drugs."

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