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Creating Drama With History in One Easy Lesson : Books: Author Daniel J. Boorstin doesn't think the past needs to be boring. That's why he focuses on the lives of remarkable individuals.

March 25, 1994|RICK VANDERKNYFF | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Historian and author Daniel J. Boorstin has studied the American heart and soul for more than half a century. As he surveys the terrain today, he sees a disturbing decline, both in public life and in the private sphere, of what he calls "the amateur spirit."

Before amateur became virtually a synonym for unskillful , it carried a meaning closer to its Latin root: amator, or lover. It is to this definition that Boorstin remains passionately devoted.

"The amateur spirit has been much maligned," Boorstin, 79, says in a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C. "I think the amateur is a lover, a person who does something for love.

"Democracy," he adds, "is government by amateurs."

If Boorstin is an amateur in spirit, he is not in deed. He was Librarian of Congress for 12 years, director of the National Museum of History and Technology, senior historian of the Smithsonian Institution and professor of history at the University of Chicago for 25 years.

With a body of work that includes his trilogy "The Americans" (the third volume, "The Democratic Experience," won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1973), plus "The Discoverers" and "The Creators," his most recent opus, Boorstin has written some of the most widely read histories of the past several decades.

Fellow author Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in his review of "The Creators": "Not often in our contemporary world do we meet a man who evokes the expression 'polymath.' Indeed, we shy away from this concept--the man whose knowledge passes freely across eras, arts and disciplines. But it is clear that Boorstin is such a man."

"I was fortunate in that I never had to make a living from writing," Boorstin says, a situation that has allowed him to pursue only those book projects that interest him and to write broad-ranging books for a general audience.

Through the first stage of his writing career, Boorstin distinguished himself as a prescient observer of the American scene, from Colonial times ("The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson," 1948) to the present.

Three decades ago, Boorstin wrote "The Image," a still-relevant chronicle of the rise in this century of the public-relations industry and the concomitant dominance of the news by "pseudo-events," calculated "for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced."

Most press conferences, highly publicized "anniversaries" of events or institutions--even orchestrated press "leaks" from government sources--qualify as "pseudo-events," under Boorstin's definition.

The processes Boorstin documented have accelerated in the decades since. He thought of updating "The Image," but decided that his examples and the conclusions he drew still hold true.

With "The Discoverers," published in 1983, Boorstin ventured into world history, outlining the search for knowledge over the centuries. "I thought perhaps it was time to grow up, and de-provincialize myself," he says.

"The Discoverers" was the inspiration for a film of the same name now playing in IMAX theaters in Los Angeles and San Diego.

His venture into world history continued with "The Creators" (1992), which followed the development of the arts through the ages. As he approaches his 80th birthday, Boorstin is at work on the third book of the series, which he calls "The Seekers."

The topic of the new work flows from the previous two. All the accumulated knowledge and the works of art, Boorstin says, beg a question: "So what? What does it all add up to?" The current work will be about "the search for meaning," and the ways in which Western peoples have sought self-knowledge.

Boorstin's most expansive works occupy him for long stretches. The three parts of "The Americans" took 25 years to research and write. "The Discoverers" and "The Creators" each took about nine years. He works closely with his wife of more than 50 years, Ruth, who is his primary editor. ("Without her, my books would be twice as long and half as readable.")

"Every book is a kind of experiment," Boorstin says. "There's a special satisfaction in writing a long book, in that you hope to grow. You must learn in the course of it. That's the challenge of the historian, to keep learning. If other people enjoy it, that's a dividend."

However, Boorstin's personal challenge to expand his own knowledge is balanced by his desire to make a book compelling to the average reader.

"In the case of nonfiction, people know how it turned out," Boorstin says. "You have to create suspense within the limits of the facts. That's what the good historian has to do, to create a drama."

If there is a common thread through Boorstin's writings on history, it's that he is less likely to focus on politics and war than on the telling details of individual lives, and the technological and social developments that shape history.

Two examples from "The Americans: The Democratic Experience" are men whose impact was very different in effect yet similar in scope.

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