GOOD books are still difficult to come by in the Soviet Union. So this year's international book fair in Moscow (Sept. 8-14) was more than an occasion for publishers to show their wares.
It gave Soviet Jews a chance to read books on their history, provided scientists an international assortment of technical books to leaf through - and even gave display space to a United States publisher of 'emigr'e literature, Ardis.
The growing glasnost, or openness, in Soviet intellectual life cannot be equated with a free marketplace for ideas, though.
The censors continued their tradition at these biennial events of confiscating volumes that, by their definition ``contradict Soviet law, or contain propaganda for war or national or racial exclusivity.'' These included Orwell's ``Animal Farm'' (in English) and ``Moscow 2042,'' by 'emigr'e writer Vladimir Voinovich.
Still, the number of books confiscated, some 30 titles, was smaller than in previous years. Soviet visitors reported that for the first time they did not have to check their bags at the entrance and didn't have their belongings searched as they left.
The fair was more international than ever this year - with participants from 103 countries, including Gambia and Gabon. The state publishing committee, which as of this year can deal directly with buyers and sellers, concluded more than 9,000 contracts and agreements with foreign firms.
Orders for books by Soviet fiction writers grew by one-third, publishing representatives say. Canadian and Hungarian firms bought the rights to plays by the now fashionable playwrights Vampilov, Shatrov, Radzinsky, and Gelman.
Practically all the 3,000 Chinese books on display were ordered for sale through the Soviet distributor, Friendship.
Soviet authorities took pains to explain to their journalists at a press conference that the trade in books is two-way, that the more they sell abroad, the more foreign books they can buy. But the shortage of books at home, even the Russian classics, remains the constant reproach of the reading public.
``In the bookshops you can see a huge quantity of useless books and pamphlets (often repeating the same themes), but you can't get hold of a popular legal reference book, an essential Russian or foreign language dictionary, a cookbook, or lots of other reference materials,'' complained one author in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta recently.
Not long ago a three-volume unlimited offering of Pushkin's works attracted more than 7 million subscribers, according to the magazine Ogonyok. The writer expressed amazement that there were so many readers without the basic works of the much-loved poet in their libraries.
Foreigners who need a small gift for a Soviet friend find that a volume of Valentin Rasputin or a collection of recent short stories purchased at the hard-currency shop is always well received. With this shortage of basic books, it's not hard to imagine the hunger for some of the more controversial works that have appeared since glasnost became a byword.
The usual excuse for the dearth of books is a lack of paper. But as many observers have noted, the bookshops are always full of unbought volumes.
The Leningrad correspondent of Sovietskaya Kultura laid it out bluntly last April when he wrote of this paradox: ``The one subject which always finds a printer if not an audience is politics. Despite perestroika [restructuring], over 20,000 new political books have been churned out by publishing houses in the past one and a half years.''
The selection of Soviet books on offer at the book fair was no exception. This included an ``especially rich'' choice of books on social-political-economic themes - from the works of Marx to the speeches of Gorbachev - the director of Soyuzkniga, the state publishing committee, said.