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CHICAGO - Talk about a strange cultural pairing.
It would be difficult to think of a better example of mainstream American entertainment than the hit ABC show "Lost" about plane crash survivors on a mysterious island. Last season, an average of nearly 17 million viewers watched the Emmy-winning show's 25 episodes. As many or more are expected for the second season.
By contrast, the Illinois-based Dalkey Archive Press is famous in literary circles for publishing experimental and avant-garde books. The firm is lucky if it sells 90,000 books in a year.
Yet, the TV show may bring an unusual bounty this fall to the 21-year-old company, headquartered on the Illinois State University campus in Normal.
On Oct. 5, one of Dalkey's books - a 1999 reprint of the comic novel "The Third Policeman" by the late Irish writer Flann O'Brien - "will be prominently featured at a key moment" in the third episode of this season of "Lost," says Craig Wright who wrote the script with Javier Grillo-Marxuach.
Normally, that wouldn't mean a lot. Who watches television dramas to get tips on what to read?
But "Lost" is decidedly not normal. It's filled with odd and unexpected plot twists - for instance, the sudden appearance of a polar bear on the castaways' South Pacific island. And no one on the island, or in the television audience, is ever quite sure what's going on.
Indeed, in the search for clues, "Lost" fans have latched onto every aspect of the show, from the numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42) a character named Hurley used to win the lottery back home, to a Spanish-language comic book of Flash and the Green Lantern ("Faster Friends") that another of the survivors was seen reading.
And it's borne fruit. That polar bear? Well, by tracking down and reading a copy of the comic, fans learned that the appearance of the bear is one of several events on the island that also happen in the Flash-Green Lantern story.
So, when a character named Sawyer got to reading "Watership Down" by Richard Adams and later Madeleine L'Engle's children's book "A Wrinkle in Time," aficionados grabbed the books and scoured them for meaning.
Adams' 1972 best seller is about rabbits fleeing a developer and seeking a safe haven, while L'Engle's work, published in 1962, deals with space and time travel. So one or both may provide a pivotal insight into where the series is going and how it will turn out.
Or they may not.
Wright and the other writers and producers on "Lost" are coy about the significance - or lack of significance - of such hints. After all, it certainly helps build up the show's aura of mystery.
Consider O'Brien's book from Dalkey. "This book," Wright says, "was chosen very specifically for a reason." It's narrated by a dead man although the reader doesn't learn this until the end of the book. A red herring, perhaps? Or a telling hint? Wright won't say.
What he will say is: "Whoever goes out and buys the book will have a lot more ammunition in their back pocket as they theorize about the show. They will have a lot more to speculate about - and, no small thing, they will have read a really great book."
Wright is a fan of Dalkey and the work it does, keeping great works from the margins of popularity in print. And officials at the press are betting his use of the book on the show will reap them a windfall.
"It's going to be huge," says Chad Post, development director at the press.
Of course, "huge" at Dalkey isn't exactly earth-shaking at most publishing houses.
At Harper Perennial, part of the massive HarperCollins organization, publicist Leslie Cohen says no one's noticed any big sales jump in "Watership Down" because of its appearance on "Lost." Indeed, she was even unaware that it had been featured on the show.
But the Adams book has sold well for more than 30 years and is a staple of high-school English classes. A sales rise due to "Lost" might not be noticeable.
That's not the case at Dalkey.
In its first two printings over the past six years, "The Third Policeman" sold nearly 15,000 copies - one of the biggest sellers in the publishing house's history.
But now, in anticipation of the "Lost" appearance, the firm has ordered up a new batch of 10,000 copies. Post is hoping that 8,000 of those copies will be sold to the show's fans.
Jim Milliot, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly, says it's prudent for Dalkey to have a new printing on hand, and thinks it could sell out. "There's a chance," he says, "that it will get some bump." But it's not going to start a stampede to the bookstores."
No, but, for Dalkey, selling 8,000 copies would be fine; indeed, it would be the equivalent for them it of a major publisher reaping the profits from "The Da Vinci Code" or a new Harry Potter book.
Besides, the firm has hedged its bets. Even if "Lost" doesn't bring a windfall, they Dalkey officials know, based on the earlier sales, that there are enough fans of good literature out there to buy up the new printing eventually.
It'll just take four years - instead of four weeks.
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.