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SUMMERTIME, AND THE READING IS CLASSIC BROWSING THE BEST OF LITERATURE'S PAST

ON AMERICA'S beaches this summer, copies of Danielle Steele's latest sudsy saga, "Message From Nam," may well outnumber the sand fleas.

But vacationers who cram their reading lists to overflowing with current best sellers might instead want to look to the literary past.

Publishers' backlists, or catalogs of books still in print, yield enough near-forgotten classics and oldies to satisfy any taste. An informal poll of a couple of dozen English professors, librarians and bookstore owners yielded a trove of backlist books suitable for vacation reading. Each book was test-read in a hot office to simulate summer conditions.

Fine old fiction

Romantics might take a break from Judith Krantz and the other writers of overwrought love stories with "Dream of the Red Chamber" by Tsao Hsueh-chin (Anchor/Doubleday, $9.95; all prices represent paperback editions). The plot of this 18th century novel, set in China, sounds familiar: Handsome Pao-yu courts his cousin Black Jade, despite the wishes of the family matriarch. But the cliches of modern romances are absent in this delicate work, with its rich details about life in the Far East and insights into the nature of love.

The model for Dirty Harry, RoboCop and other American loner heroes can be found in Zane Grey's "Riders of the Purple Sage" (Pocket Books, $3.50). This 1912 classic has its share of melodramatic prose, but it's hard not to be intrigued by the mysterious Lassiter, who rides into town to avenge the death of Milly Erne, a woman who died of a broken heart after her baby disappeared -- or was stolen by her enemies.

"Call It Sleep" by Henry Roth (Avon, $4.95) views the immigrant experience through the eyes of a European Jewish boy in New York -- beloved by his mother, abused by his father and adrift in the "Golden Land." This 1934 title languished in obscurity, but a 1964 paperback edition won acclaim and a mass audience.

"The Wide, Wide World" by Susan Warner (Feminist Press, $11.95), a best seller in 1850, still satisfies readers who revel in a tear-jerker. Poor little Ellen Montgomery is sent to live in a remote American town with niggardly Aunt Fortune when Ellen's sick mother sails to Europe for a cure. Little more than a slave to her aunt, Ellen must follow 19th century good-little-girl rules: Accept her fate, squelch her nasty thoughts and be nice to Aunt Fortune.

Zora Neale Hurston, the late black writer who died in a "welfare home" and was buried in an unmarked grave, has struck a new wave of popularity with a hit off-Broadway play based on her collection of short stories, "Spunk." Her 1937 novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" (Harper & Row, $8.95) told in earthy dialect and full of folk wisdom, is the story of a strong-willed black woman, Janie Crawford. Crawford's first two husbands treat her like a slave, but she gains respect in her third match.

Science fiction fans know Karel Capek, the late Czech author, as the man who coined the word "robot" in his novel "R.U.R."

In "War With the Newts" (Catbird Press, $9.95), Capek envisioned a world conquered by 4-foot-tall talking salamanders. The 1936 book foreshadows the rise of Hitler and manages to be playful as well.

Fans of confessional novels, like this spring's "Deceptions" by Philip Roth, might try an Italian version, "Confessions of Zeno" by Italo Svevo (Vintage, $9.95). Famous in Italy, the 1923 novel is the darkly funny life story of a man trying to quit smoking. His shrink tells him to write down everything leading up to the habit; neurotic Zeno dutifully records the death of his father, his pursuit of women and assorted life crises.

Modern-day gumshoes could take a lesson from Judge Dee, the Sherlock Holmes of the seventh century. "The Chinese Bell Murders" by Robert van Gulik (University of Chicago Press, $5.95), a 1958 title based on ancient Chinese legend, starts when a Chinese antique collector tries on the judge's cap and is thunderstruck by hallucinations, including the case of a young woman allegedly raped and murdered by her illicit lover.

The demise of the Cold War has rendered many modern-era spy novels obsolete and thus less intriguing. But try "A Coffin for Dimitrios" by Eric Ambler (Carroll & Graf, $3.95), published in 1937, a tale of the national rivalries in pre-World War II Europe and the spying they spawned. Ambler hooks the reader on Page 1 with the observation that a certain man called Latimer owes "his life to a criminal's odd taste in interior decoration."

History and science

The legacy of Earth Day is a flood of new books paying tribute to the planet, but Henry David Thoreau and others were trailblazers. Thoreau's "Walden" (Princeton University Press, $6.95) and "The Maine Woods" (Perennial Library, $9.95), with his paeans to nature in New England and his sermons on the mistakes of man, deserve to be recycled.

Americans traveling to Paris can learn the story behind the famous English-language bookstore "Shakespeare and Company" in the 1956 book by the same name (University of Nebraska Press, $6.95). The author is Sylvia Beach, a feisty New Jerseyite who founded the shop in 1919, hobnobbed with the literati of the era and published the first edition of James Joyce's "Ulysses."

The racial tensions of 1990 can be better understood by reading a 1964 book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Malcolm X with Alex Haley (Ballantine, $5.95). The story of the late Black Muslim leader's life, from his days as a drug hustler to his repudiation of his anti-white views after a pilgrimage to Mecca, is a profound document on racism yet is as readable as Haley's "Roots."

Laughs and lowbrow
pleasures

For everything you never wanted to know about sex, the ultimate source is "Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do" by James Thurber and E.B. White (Harper & Row, $8.95), published in 1929. The co-authors begin by noting that "two factors in our civilization have been greatly overemphasized. One is aviation. The other is sex." Though written long before self-help guides became ubiquitous, the book brilliantly spoofs the genre.

Humorist Will Cuppy's 1941 book of essays on different species, "How to Become Extinct" (University of Chicago Press, $5.95), offers a compendium of silly facts. ("Pliny the Elder states that vipers are not venomous when asleep. That is called classical learning.")

Pop-culture addicts can wallow in the world of Dick Tracy without buying the novelization of one of the summer's most ballyhooed movies. "Dick Tracy: America's Most Famous Detective," edited by Bill Crouch Jr. (Citadel Press, $14.95), serves up reminiscences by the late cartoonist Chester Gould and reproductions of classic Tracy strips with weirdo villains like Pruneface and Haf-and-Haf. A new edition of the 1987 book has been slightly revised to include some poop on the movie.

To venture beyond these selections, you can consult "The Reader's Catalogue," edited by Geoffrey O'Brien (Jason Epstein, 1989, $24.95), an annotated guide to more than 40,000 titles that are recommended by a team of critics and scholars.

Though many chain stores may not stock obscure titles, any bookstore can order for you, or you can order the books through "The Reader's Catalogue" at (800) 882-8770.

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