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Just Words, but They Linger [HLMEDIA COMMENTARY

THE newsstand was a grimy little nook, with out-of-town papers and magazines you'd certainly never think of buying. But on a wire rack was a publication that stood out for its utter plainness. No cover. No pictures. It was called MANAS. I am drawn to things that don't try to please me. And at 30 cents, why not?

That day, near the end of my schooling, was the start of an education. More than 15 years later, my bookshelves are full of writers I first encountered - or first began to grasp - through this little weekly journal.

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MANAS was an island of calm amid the visual clutter of today's media. Newspapers and magazines spend fortunes on snappy graphics. MANAS, by contrast, was the image of honesty. Every issue looked exactly the same. An essay on the front page. A review - really another essay - on the third. Departments called ``Children'' and ``Frontiers.''

The style was one with the appearance, sturdy in the service of its subject, drawing no attention to itself. The purpose was to ``present ideas and viewpoints, not personalities,'' a notice in each issue stated. The name MANAS came from ``a common root suggesting `man,' or `the thinker,' the notice explained. Except for occasional guest articles, none of the offerings were signed.

Strange thing. Those publications that clamor so loudly for attention fade from memory like last night's tuna fish. Yet MANAS, so utterly nondescript, lingers.

I can still remember an essay years ago on Jos'e Ortega y Gassett's ``The Revolt of the Masses.'' Modern man is becoming more primitive, Ortega wrote. He understands as little about the technology that serves him as primitive people understood about lightning and air.

I've been thinking about that ever since. As I have about essays on Ivan Illich, Gandhi, Thoreau, E.F. Schumacher, and a host of others I encountered on these pages.

The tone was sober but hopeful - Prospero and King Lear. The outlook was both left and right - left in diagnosis, right in response. MANAS saw acquisitiveness and self-seeking as the roots of social problems. But it held that answers should be voluntary and local rather than centralized and coercive.

MANAS wrote often of John Holt, the late advocate of home schooling. It spoke approvingly of solar energy, trash recycling, conservation, and other self-help solutions that don't require corporate or governmental bureaucracies. MANAS didn't regard such steps as progress in themselves, but rather as signs that people were coming to grips with something more inward and fundamental.

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One recent article related why Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer who is an essayist and poet, declined to buy a word processor. ``I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me,'' Berry wrote.

The man who published MANAS was named Henry Geiger. I don't know much about him except that he wrote MANAS himself and did the office work as well. He answered mail on a manual typewriter. Preparing copy for his printer, he typed out long quotations from books by hand.

Once I was in Los Angeles and called to arrange a visit. Mr. Geiger was a bit out of breath. He had been outside building a wall. Fitting, I thought. ``While your fingers are carrying out the task,'' he wrote in the Berry essay, ``your mind is free to skip around, sometimes acquiring rich associations.''

I never made it over. But in the years since, I have encountered a few other MANAS readers. They were people who tried to connect their values to the particulars of their lives - who might bundle up old newspapers and decline processed, packaged food.

Last fall, a friend and I thought to bring together the MANAS readers in the area. She wrote Geiger for a list. His response was troubling. ``I'm just too tired to go on,'' Geiger wrote. He published his last issue in December. Two months later, at age 81, he died.

Strange thing. This man, whom I never met or saw, is more with me than people I see every day. The way MANAS, so nondescript, lingers. The way that things not seen, grow in the mind. Can we even grasp such things in a video, visual age?

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