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Now in Paperback

April 26, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Kim Williams' Book of Uncommon Sense (Fawcett: $3.95). While the author's grandmotherly, jovial voice and deceptively sophisticated advice will be familiar to listeners of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," this book failed to garner its fair share of critical attention when it first appeared last year. No doubt this was partly because the subtitle--"A Practical Guide With 10 Rules for Nearly Everything"--pegged it as "self-help," a popular though overpopulated and often predictable genre. Williams devotes fewer than 10 pages to the 10 rules, however, and the advice she enthusiastically doles out in other pages bears less resemblance to au courant self-help techniques drawn from cognitive psychology than to homespun wisdom: intuitive, moral, forthright and occasionally flaky speculations on everything from marriage ("I swallowed the whale when I married Mel. It caused me tremendous indigestion. But here I am, bigger than I was") to senior citizen centers ("We know we have arthritis, give us something bigger than arthritis. We wish to be involved, to seek, to quest, to adventure, to laugh at death"). Though the author blurb in this "April, 1987" edition oddly fails to mention it, Kim Williams died of cancer last August after refusing chemotherapy.

Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad (Vintage: $8.95). Both fans and detractors are likely to be drawn into this in-depth report on the people and politics involved in creating the original program, for the authors offer not fanzine gush but a thoughtful look at the process of redefining creative forms in television. Excerpts from the program's brash, irreverent comedy sketches are sprinkled through these pages. Their appearance isn't gratuitous, however, for the program was aimed at a savvy TV generation, and so many of the skits--a network executive enters the "Star Trek" set, for example, to inform Capt. Kirk that his mission has been canceled--are themselves reflections on the industry. The show also makes good fodder for an analysis of TV because in trying to break video convention, it forced TV executives to reflect on traditional practices. Thoughtful writers and aggressive reporters, the authors center their story on Lorne Michaels, the show's creator, from his early brainstorming sessions while under the influence of "magic mushrooms" in the Mojave Desert to politicking in the network's corporate tower, getting valuable aid from NBC's president and unrelenting scrutiny from a bespectacled budget boss and chief censor "almost sick with concern" about the show's humor.

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper (Thames & Hudson: $12.95). This is one of the few reference works that can be read with pleasure from cover to cover, in small part because, at 200 pages, its size is less-than overwhelming, in large because the author has chosen to emphasize the dynamic meaning of the symbols rather than the often-mundane details of usage. Differences in usage are, of course, significant--A black cat doesn't mean bad luck to everyone, after all--and so J. C. Cooper draws contrasts between everything from ants ("righteous insects" in China, reminders of transitoriness in the Hindu tradition) to rainbows ("celestial serpents" in parts of Africa, ladders of access to unknown worlds in Amerindian culture). Ultimately, though, Cooper seems most interested in the relevance of symbols to contemporary society. Symbols do more than "equate," Cooper contends; they are not only "artifacts from our past," but signs "of some essential part of our subjective world." Quoting Mircea Eliade, the author concludes that the recovery of symbolism offers a chance to "rescue modern man from his cultural provincialism and, above all, from his historical and existential relativism."

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