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AUTHOR, AUTHOR, AUTHOR : Bagels : Noah benShea writes about the person he aspires to be. In 'Jacob's Journey,' that man sets out to reconcile his route to reality.

October 17, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here it is, fall in Ventura County, that ripest of times for apples, lemons, kiwi fruits, pumpkins, pomegranates, artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, mushrooms, spinach, squash and new books.

Yes, new books. Three writers from this area have been cultivating new projects, and their works make a strange new crop.

"Jacob's Journey" is a contemplative novel by Noah benShea, the erstwhile leader of a Carpinteria bagel company. The author is expected to speak at 6 p.m. Friday in the Ventura Bookstore in Ventura.

"Tricks of the Trade" is a paperback collection of practical and impractical advice (subjects include checkers and bullfighting; advisers include Chevy Chase and Kareem Abdul Jabbar), all gathered by Jerry Dunn of Ojai.

And "Probably More Than You Want to Know About the Fishes of the Pacific Coast" is just that--an exhaustive yet goofy guide by UC Santa Barbara researcher Robin Milton Love. At the Channel Islands National Park office in Ventura, rangers say the book is the best available guide to fish off this county's coastline.

Here, Ventura County Life offers a closer inspection of the books and their authors.

In the mid-'70s, at age 30, Noah benShea was a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, the prestigious think tank in Santa Barbara. One day, he and a visitor from New York were walking the grounds of the center. The man, benShea said, asked him where he lived, and benShea pointed to a bucolic hilltop where he and his wife, Danyel, had just purchased a home, modest in all respects except for the view. The man looked at benShea and simply said, "Don't blow it."

He didn't. Fifteen years later, he is one of the owners of the New York Bagel Factory, a thriving multimillion-dollar gourmet bread business, selling bagels and breads to Vons and the Price Club in Ventura County, and to purveyors across the country.

He is also the author of "Jacob's Journey," 30,000 copies of which have just been released by Villard. It is the companion volume to his international best seller, "Jacob the Baker," published in 1989. Both are slim novels, slight of plot but full of lyrical distillations of common sense, parables, aphorisms, inspiration and truth. While they can be read in less than an hour, one might be tempted to keep them by the bedside for a lifetime.

Both novels are about a baker who has a habit of writing down bits of wisdom on little pieces of paper. In "Jacob the Baker," one of these papers accidentally gets baked into a loaf of bread, and Jacob is discovered by a public hungry for solutions to the puzzles of life.

One can't help make the analogy to a Jewish fortune cookie. And like a trade exchange with Confucius' sayings, "Jacob the Baker" was enormously successful in Asia, selling more than 200,000 copies in Korea. It has been translated into nine languages and, in this country, it was on the Chicago Tribune's best-seller lists.

Given the success of "Jacob the Baker," it isn't surprising that the new book deals with the consequences of fame and the isolation that comes from being considered wiser than other people.

"In many regards, success means doing something other than what you have been successful at," benShea said. To get away from his "fame," Jacob sets out on a journey of self-discovery or, as he puts it, "reconciling his route to reality." In one of his succinct truisms, Jacob says: "Our path in life is often not our decision, but how we decide to live with decisions that have already been made."

"Jacob's Journey" is dedicated to the quiet heroism of those who carry on.

BenShea has been crisscrossing the country promoting the new book. He will speak and sign books at the Ventura Bookstore at 6 p.m. Friday.

At home for a few days before leaving to be scholar in residence for a week at the University of Texas, he welcomes a visitor into his sunlit hilltop house. It is surprisingly modest and impressively comfortable.

Now in his mid-40s, benShea is affable and gracious with a bushy reddish beard and blue eyes. He is called a poet and a philosopher and is unabashedly religious. He also drives a Porsche. His manner combines earnest fervor with self-deprecation.

When an interviewer on a Chicago radio show recently asked him, "How could you have so much wisdom on 112 pages?" he responded: "I don't know. When I wrote the book, there were 75 pages." But he is quick to reach for the book, to read from it and use it to illustrate a point.

In his office, filled with family pictures, mementos and symbols of Jewish faith, he admits that Jacob's habit of scribbling on little pieces of paper is also his, and he opens a file drawer, scooping out handfuls of scraps and cocktail napkins to prove it.

Jacob and his creator are also both bakers, with benShea insisting that Jacob is a baker who writes, while he is a writer who owns a bakery. BenShea crafted Jacob's words, but Jacob is really the person that benShea aspires to be.

"I wrote Jacob in order to be Jacob."

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