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Nonfiction in Brief

A WORLD OF IDEAS by Bill Moyers (Doubleday: $24.95; 432 pp.)

April 16, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

Reporting events and political rhetoric without examining underlying trends and ideas, nonfiction programming on television is not renowned for its subtlety of thought. For a few months beginning last September, however, Bill Moyers managed to imbue the airwaves with a more reflective spirit in the PBS series, "A World of Ideas." Regular readers of literature will be familiar with many of Moyers' subjects--from Isaac Asimov to Derek Walcott--but this book, based on edited transcripts of the show, should still be of interest, for Moyers doesn't lower the level of dialogue for TV. On the contrary, he consistently focuses these conversations through thoughtful comments and enlivens them by playing provocateur.

Moyers is clearly fond of this latter role. In his interview with Northrop Frye, for instance, he playfully puts the Canadian literary critic on the defensive by confronting him with a number of stereotypes (e.g., "Canadians are so friendly that they even say, 'Thank you' to a bank machine"). In many other dialogues, Moyers takes just the opposite role, tempering his subjects' extremes of optimism and pessimism. While Joseph Heller paints a bleak picture of American politics, for instance ("It is the function of a leader in a democracy, if he wishes to be a leader, to manipulate the emotions and ideas of the public"), Moyers gently counters Heller's cynicism ("But, like taxes, isn't politics the price we pay for civilization?"), leading Heller to acknowledge that "There's no other government that we can envision that we would prefer to democracy."

Moyers' conclusion is a minor problem in these pages. Attempting to avoid partisanship, he claims that the only consensus most of these thinkers reach is that "we can best negotiate the future through a multitude of shared acts." In fact, Moyers' subjects agree on many issues, such as the need to require our politicians to speak more spontaneously. Were Moyers to have stressed these areas of agreement, he might have been able to give his world of ideas greater clout in the world of action, since squabbling intellectuals are usually the first to be ignored in politics. One gathers that Moyers would favor such influence, for as he writes, "the men and women who shared their ideas in the series are public thinkers. Their Ivory Tower is just a mailing address; they are at home in the world."

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