When the latest book by Poland's best-known novelist, Tadeus Konwicki, was published in November, the first printing of 30,000 copies sold out within a day of reaching the bookstores. That's common enough. Compared with the United States, where reading is often taken for granted, Eastern Europe's eager, literate populations continue to revere the printed word. More surprising was that the book appeared at all. For the previous 10 years, Mr. Konwicki's brilliant, unsparing descriptions of Polish officialdom have circulated only in clandestine editions.
The decision by Cytelnik, a state publishing house, to release ``New World and Environs'' shows that many Polish readers no longer must accept a diet of bland socialist fare. Thanks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of greater cultural openness, pressure from a burgeoning underground press, and a desire for credibility, Polish publishers are trying to satisfy the public's hunger for literature by serving up large slices of science fiction, spy thrillers, and even pungent political satire.
``The authorities want support from the writers,'' Konwicki says. ``Reading is a religion in this part of the world. It fulfills a spiritual need.''
Mr. Gorbachev turned on the green light for this more liberal literary policy. After meeting with him last summer, Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski appointed a new culture minister with an apolitical reputation who began courting controversial authors.
``To create a new cultural life,'' admits Kazimierz Kochanski, the Culture Ministry's deputy director, ``we must accept criticism and controversies.''
To be sure, progress in the East bloc is far from uniform. In Bucharest's dimly lit bookstores, volumes of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu's speeches cover almost the entire window display.
Czechoslovakia's most daring publisher, a group of cultural and political noncomformists known as the Jazz Section, stopped operating in September when its leaders were arrested. They face long prison terms.
Even in Poland, the new policy has limits. In recent weeks, security police have confiscated cars full of printing equipment for underground publishers. At the Culture Ministry, Mr. Kochanski explains that the state will never sanction ``books questioning our alliance with the Soviet Union.''
For this reason, many writers who have abandoned official publishers refuse overtures by the authorities. Marek Nowakowski, author of a collection of short stories, says his works - about drunks, lovers without apartments, and taxi drivers - ``are political only insofar as life in Poland is political.'' State publishers have offered to print his works, Mr. Nowakowski says, ``but as a matter of principle I won't submit my material to a censor.''
His decision illustrates the high moral obligations felt by East European authors, many of whom lived for centuries under foreign domination, and often were forced to speak foreign languages in school.
``During that time writers kept alive the national spirit,'' explains Stanislaw Bebenek, director of Cytelnik Publishers.
Under today's communist regimes, writers continue to play a much more important political role in the East than in the West, holding influential positions within both the government and the opposition.
Some of General Jaruzelski's closest advisers, Mieczyslaw Rakowski and Jerzy Urban, made their names as journalists and still spend much of their time putting out books.
Adam Michnik, a leader of the now-banned Solidarity trade union and author of the recently released book ``Letters from Prison,'' received much of his political education and distaste for communism by serving as a secretary to the late poet Antoni Slonimski.
This literary activism creates a cultural air thick with open letters, manifestos, and pamphlets - an atmosphere that fuels public interest in literature and a more open literary policy.
``Since writers are running the country, they look favorably upon literature,'' Mr. Bebenek notes.
Anna, a college student, is typical. At Warsaw's Zeromski bookstore, she walks past the stacks of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx - ``they're boring,'' she complains - to the fiction department.
``I'm looking for science fiction, preferably [Isaac] Asimov or [Ray] Bradbury, but I'll take anything interesting,'' she says. ``I read 30 books a month.''
Although East European publishers continue to pour out unbought volumes of political thought, they are printing more books catering to the common tastes.
Breaking old rules that carefully rationed Western books, one Polish publisher sold out 150,000 copies of Raymond Chandler's ``Farewell, My Lovely.'' And in a burst of nostalgic frenzy, Adam Mickiewicz's ``Mr. Tadeusz,'' a 19th-century epic poem celebrating the Polish fight for independence during the Napoleonic wars, sold more than 1 million copies last year.
Huge print runs notwithstanding, terrible book shortages remain throughout Eastern Europe. Anna prowls through Warsaw's main bookshops, but rarely finds her favorite authors. Her only hope, she explains, is to have a friend who works as a salesperson put aside a copy when it arrives, or to go to private flea markets. Asimov and Bradbury are available there, but at prohibitive prices, more than 10 times the official rates.
The problem is part political and part economic. Instead of responding to market forces, the Culture Ministry's Kochanski says state publishers are obligated to fulfill ``social duties.'' This means production of unpopular exhortatory fare continues while ``hot'' titles, such as Konwicki's, are often limited to small print runs. It also results in bureaucratic sluggishness and timidity that keep authors from seeing their books in print for up to five years from the time they hand in manuscripts.
The lethargy creates a business purpose for the underground press. Even though books may receive limited exposure in the underground, they get immediate response. ``We have fewer decisionmaking layers,'' explains Jacek Marciakowski, a journalist who works extensively for the underground.
Outside of these practical motives, the underground serves the crucial purpose of offering an ideological alternative. As state publishers take on more controversial books, Mr. Marciakowski says the underground will push the state by publishing ever more provocative books.
Konwicki agrees - to a point. Although he praises the underground for ``easing censorship,'' he complains that it has created ``a claustrophobic split'' among Polish artists, between those who are published officially and those who insist on publishing clandestinely.
``I don't want to be known just as an `opposition author,''' he says. ``For too long, writers here have been judged not by what they wrote, but by which side they took along the barricades.''
Thus, the decision to publish officially. He concedes that his new book would never have been accepted if it had explicitly criticized the Soviet Union. But, he argues, ``I wrote about resisting totalitarianism and the references to the present situation are clear.'' The censor, he adds, did not ask for any changes.