Langston Hughes: The Big Sea (Thunder's Mouth: $8.95). One might think that the author's ability to write breezily about deeply rooted social and philosophical problems would win him a loyal readership, but since he died in 1967, Langston Hughes has not remained as prominent as other leaders who helped bring about fundamental changes in social ideals and institutions in America. His relative obscurity is not surprising, however, for his smooth writing and consistently effective sense of humor do not conceal a message that many continue to find unnerving. Hughes saw prejudice as all pervasive, present in everything from the "petty black bourgeoisie" to his father's housekeeper, who had enjoyed eating "a delicious kind of white meat" with a Spanish name until she discovered that the name meant "eel": "I didn't mind" eating the fish, writes Hughes, "since I have no prejudice against eels."
Lobbying against eel discrimination is, no doubt, brash, and similar ignoble traits can be found in this 1940 autobiography, which chronicles the poet's early participation in the Harlem-based "Black Renaissance" in art and entertainment (this fall, the publisher will release a volume covering later years). Often, Hughes is not as reflective about his own idiosyncrasies as he is about America's: He never tells us why he ran away from recognition as a young adult, for instance, turning down prestigious positions and quitting his job as a waiter when it was discovered that he was a poet. But these problems are trifling in the context of this book, for Hughes entertains and enlightens, often interrupting the narrative in mid-text to pass down a lesson that we might find valuable: "Listen everybody!" he tells us at one point, "Never go to live with relatives if you're broke."
Titanic, Col. Archibald Gracie (Academy Chicago: $8.95). The author, among the last to abandon the ocean liner, started writing this chronicle only days after the April, 1912, sinking that has become synonymous with "disaster." He died several months later, leaving a definitive account, if not an engaging story. While describing how he narrowly escaped death after being sucked into an ocean whirlpool, for instance, Archibald Gracie wanders off into a monologue about how cricket "has done more than any other sport" for his physical development. But there remains an exciting adventure story here for readers willing to do the page- and paragraph-skipping that Gracie might have done had he lived until 1913. Gracie recounts heroics (the band plays upbeat tunes even as the ship begins to list dramatically, a survivor sincerely gives his good wishes to men who refuse him entry on an overcrowded rescue boat) and the less-than-heroic (the Titanic's wireless operator says "shut up" when the captain of another ship tries to warn him about ocean dangers). Wreckage from the Titanic was discovered last September in 13,000 feet of water near Newfoundland.
Body Politics: Power, Sex and Nonverbal Communication, Nancy M. Henley (Simon & Schuster: $6.95). Discrimination in America may be less black and white than it was in the 1950s, but the author, a psychology professor at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts, is convinced that today's new, subtler forms are equally damaging. As Henley sees it, staring, touching and frowning convey dominance as effectively as the most unflexible bureaucratic hierarchies. Her book judiciously stresses the importance of research and the necessity for personal action, but its logical conclusion--that we need to abandon longstanding forms of social behavior--has struck many as unsettling.
Thomas A. Edison: A Streak of Luck, Robert Conot; Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, Rene Dubos (Plenum: $13.95 and $11.95). Thomas Edison was as much the shady entrepreneur as he was the scientist. Yet, despite inventing such absurdities as the electric canoe (or, perhaps, because of them), Edison was more admired in his own day than most scientists. This critically acclaimed 1979 biography shows how Edison stood at the center of commerce in his day, dealing as much with the rivalries among the railroads as with developments in the laboratory. On the day he died, Americans dimmed their lights in memoriam. Commerce and politics hardly touched Louis Pasteur, on the other hand. In his 1950 biography, Rene Dubos glowingly portrays a true scientist, fervently studying everything from childbirth to fever and the fermentation of beer; concerned with rivalries between global ecosystems, not between people.
NOTEWORTHY: Of a Fire on the Moon, Norman Mailer (Grove: $3.95). Dubbed by critics "a Moby Dick of Space," this 1969 book actually has more to say about mankind's growing aspirations and self-awareness than it does about its symbolic subject--the voyage of Apollo 11.