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JANUARY 10, 2000: 

Whatever It Takes: Women on Women's Sport
Edited by Joli Sandoz and Joby Winans (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper, $13)

This is a collection of short pieces, mostly nonfiction. The theme is the feeling of power that women derive from their physical achievements. Mostly, though, these stories are personal. The strongest selections celebrate the pay-off for hard work, stress and misery. As in any anthology, there is a range of effectiveness and appeal. Some people and some sports are just more interesting than others.

Many of the selections have a lesbian viewpoint, which makes sense in any cross-section of the female population, no matter what the subject matter. Alisa Solomon's absolute insistence on lesbian ownership of female athletic empowerment, though, was somewhat offensive. I wanted to grab her by the lapels and explain to her that a blind positive stereotype is as harmful and misleading as the blind negative stereotypes she decries. Playing hard and well shouldn't be about sexual orientation.

Several of these are love stories, with mostly bittersweet but occasionally happy endings. Commitment to a sport works about evenly in creating bonds and excluding distractions. Many of these writers grew up before the advent of Title IX, the rule that requires equal time and access for male and female athletic programs at the college level. There is no question that opportunities have increased since Title IX, but girls have always participated unofficially. It's just that now we aren't expected to grow out of it when we get breasts.

The overall tone of the book is a bit too literary. I would have appreciated more sweat and fewer writing degrees, and the cover photograph is overly sexy for a volume on women's empowerment. This isn't supposed to be about looks -- but then neither is pro football, and those guys wear really tight pants. -- Dorothy Cole

Civilizing the Machine
by John F. Kasson (Hill and Wang, paper, $13)

It is a truism of contemporary life that technology has given us the leisure to demand satisfactions and freedoms that would have been unimaginable for previous generations. Subtitled "Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900," John Kasson's book examines the rise of mechanized dreams and the political system that made those dreams a partial reality. He is not talking about the Republican Party. Technology required a new group dynamic in society -- nowadays it calls itself communitarian -- and an ethical structure shared between the different levels of humanity. The United States was designed to exploit that common ethic. Kasson means that in the best way possible, even when he illuminates setbacks. This is a history book, but heavily larded with the flavors of philosophy, literature and political science. It is no light read, but it provides connections that put industrialization in an unaccustomed focus.

The book was originally published during Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Although this edition includes a new preface by the author, he has had the sense to let his thesis stand. He also lets 18th- and 19th-century critics of technology speak for themselves, interjecting commentary only to supply context. Kasson shows both the progress and the setbacks that more than a century of profound change can provide. At the same time factory work and common goals were strengthening the country's republican intent, successive waves of immigration threatened the progress of democracy by, at times, reinforcing the worst impulses of the industrialists.

The United States, like many products of revolution, started life with a Utopian vision. This book shows how it was our timing, as much as any advantage in attitude and planning, that gave our particular experiment a chance to succeed. We're still fine-tuning the machine and trying to determine the role of education, but the past should help us deal with the future as it comes. As long as we can keep treating the vision of Utopia as a shared dream, there may be hope for us yet. Let's make it worthwhile. -- Dorothy Cole

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