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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

November 13, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

CLEOPATRA'S NOSE Essays on the Unexpected by Daniel J. Boorstin (Random House: $23; 211 pp.) One of the nice things about an essay is that it gives the author an opportunity to answer a question that burns in the breast of the reader; questions the author, because he or she possesses extraordinary sensitivity, living as authors do, on the pulse, the heartbeat of the era (or shut away in some isolated cubbyhole), knows the correct answer to, or can at least puzzle through with the reader. In these essays, which take on the "role of the accidental and the trivial" in history, the questions and the answers are both constructed, in a sort of wobbly way, out of Boorstin's vast erudition. (Boorstin is an historian, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, the author of "The Creators," "The Discoverers" and "The Americans," and was, for 12 years, the Librarian of Congress.) "For most of Western history interpretation has far outrun data," he writes. He contemplates the writer's divided self as "conscience of the world," the problems of being a "conscience-wracked" nation, the "historical paradox" that "in a nation where blacks are only a minority, the federal capital is governed by blacks. But they play a small role in the cultural life of the city." Some of the enemies here are just as shadowy as the questions being asked: "To respect female sensitivities, must the once respectable university group called a 'seminar' be re-christened an 'ovular'?" The essays on Washington, "The Role of the President's House," "The Making of a Capitol" and "An Un-American Capitol" are a little bland and uncompelling. Best are the autobiographical essays, "My Father, Lawyer Sam Boorstin," and "Land of the Unexpected," which answer at least one of our burning questions at the end of this book, namely, "Who are you, Mr. Boorstin?"

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