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Short Takes

A Short History of Myth
By Karen Armstrong
Canongate
, 192 pp., $18

There has been myth longer than there has been civilization, writes Karen Armstrong, the author of numerous thoughtful popular works on religion. Prehistoric shamans invoked the same sky gods and animal spirits that have been sacred to hunter-gatherer peoples throughout the ages. The early Western civilizations created myths of immortals and questing heroes whose names and deeds live on in modern culture. A great revolution in consciousness gave birth to the world religions that still maintain their dominion, and a second revolution introduced the dispute between reason and faith that bedevils us today.

More intriguing than the historical generalizations in this surface-skimming survey are Armstrong's thoughts on the purpose of myth, which was to create meaning and cohesion in a society by inspiring ''imitation or participation, not passive contemplation." Lacking our own living myths, she suggests, we may look for our higher purposes to art and literature -- a convenient proposition, since her book is the introductory volume in a series of reimagined myths written by contemporary authors. The artists Armstrong points to, ironically, are the familiar icons of High Modernism, which leaves postmodern man out on a limb, spiritually speaking.

Long Way Back
By Brendan HalpinVillard, 224 pp., $22.95

In both his fiction and his nonfiction, Brendan Halpin writes touchingly of love and loss, matters with which he has had some acquaintance in real life.

His latest novel is rather precariously constructed in that the first-person narrator and the protagonist are not the same person, a feat that Halpin, a likable but not immensely gifted novelist, isn't quite up to carrying off. ''Long Way Back" takes the form of a diary kept sporadically over a period of years by Clare Kelly, who matures from a snide teenager into a compassionate nurse, loving wife and mother, and frustrated caretaker to her aging countercultural parents and her younger brother, Francis. It is Francis, however, who suffers the novel's emotional crisis and falls into a slough of despair.

The novel has charm, despite its clunky construction. Halpin has yet to learn how to give life to real characters as opposed to spokespersons enacting his own traumas and neuroses, but he's getting there.

Every Book Its Reader
By Nicholas A. Basbanes
HarperCollins
, 384 pp., $29.95

A confirmed bibliophile, Nicholas Basbanes undertakes to explore in this essay collection nothing less than, in the lofty words of the subtitle, ''the power of the printed word to stir the world." Fortunately for readers not cut of heroic cloth, the essays themselves are not nearly as ponderous as that tagline suggests.

Most, in fact, amble eccentrically along, using interviews with well-known literary figures as jumping-off points for digressions and ruminations. A conversation with David McCullough leads Basbanes to reflect on the reading that shaped the minds of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The author whimsically imagines himself, armed with ''a short list of probing questions," settling down on a bench in the Public Garden to interview the touring author Will Shakespeare. Basbanes queries writer-pediatrician Perri Klass about the role books play in early childhood development, and he wonders at the near-insuperable impediments great men and women such as the multiple-handicapped Helen Keller and the slave Frederick Douglass had to overcome to learn how to read.

Weightier than mere reportage, differently focused than literary criticism, these essays are difficult to characterize. They occupy a corner of the grand salon of the history of ideas, though a corner furnished with a comfortable chair and a reading lamp casting a warm, welcoming glow.

Amanda Heller is a critic and author who lives in Newton.

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