Accessible, useful delights anchor a personal library These volumes are for you - but they're not bad ideas for holiday gifts.

November 29, 1998|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Nowadays, most books - novels, biographies, even collections of short stories - are far too fat for their own good. But I have always had a special place in my heart and on my shelves for a certain kind of big book: the crotchety, opinionated work of reference by an author (or editor) who knows everything worth knowing about his particular area of expertise, and has boiled it down to small, readily digestible bits of savory prose.

The best such books can be read straight through from end to end, but they are also ideal for bedtime consumption, since they can be dipped into at random and read with profit for a few minutes, then put aside until the next sleepless night.

Many such books have turned up from time to time in the course of this series, but the present list consists exclusively of titles that have never before been featured in an "Instant Culture" piece. All are readily available at your neighborhood bookstore or online, and all are highly suitable for anyone wishing to further his self-education in the best of all possible ways - reading.

The books pages of The Sun do not publish Christmas lists as such. But should you find yourself in search of just the right present for a bookish friend, my guess is that any of them would fill the bill quite neatly:

* Movies. David Thomson's "Biographical Dictionary of Film" (Knopf, 834 pages, $27.50 paper) is a spectacularly biased compilation of more than 1,000 short essays covering most of the film industry's key figures.

What Thomson loves, he loves passionately; what he loathes, he nails to the wall. Either way, the things he has to say are guaranteed to make you think twice about actors and directors whose work you thought you knew like the back of your hand.

Here, for example, is Thomson on Humphrey Bogart: "He made few wholly satisfactory films - 'High Sierra,' 'To Have and Have Not,' 'The Big Sleep,' 'In a Lonely Place' - and failed in a variety of parts outside the narrow range he saw fit for himself. But within that range he had the impact of Garbo or James Dean. Like them, he was a Romantic. It is harder to see him as such because of the efforts he made to appear anti-Romantic. The implications of his work - as a comment on self-dramatization - are rather more daunting and disturbing than he ever realized."

* Ballet. Robert Greskovic's "Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet" (Hyperion, 634 pages, $16.95 paper) is far and away the best and most comprehensive introductory guide to classical ballet. Greskovic, a much-admired New York critic who recently began covering dance for the Wall Street Journal, is a true expert who has never lost his enthusiasm for ballet, and he writes about it with all the infectious enthusiasm of a first-time dancegoer. Of special value are his detailed descriptions of 14 major ballets, all keyed to currently available videocassette versions - a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.

* Radio. John Dunning's newly published "On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio" (Oxford, 822 pages, $55) is the long-awaited second edition of "Tune In Yesterday," the definitive guide to network radio, which has been out of print for years (used copies sell for up to $200 apiece). This extensively revised version, which contains twice as many entries as its predecessor, is packed with crisply written miniature essays on the classic shows of yesteryear.

"Vic and Sade," "Fibber McGee and Molly," "Information, Please," "The Shadow," "I Love a Mystery," "One Man's Family" - all are described in evocative and reliable detail. Dunning is no mere nostalgia hound, and he frequently passes unsparing judgments some of radio's best-loved series (he's unexpectedly tough, for instance, on Bob Hope and Fred Allen).

Warning: Reading this book is likely to make you want to go out and buy a couple of dozen "Jack Benny Program" cassettes.

* Literature. H. L. Mencken's "New Dictionary of Quotations" (Knopf, 1347 pages, $75) began life as a card file of Mencken's favorite quotations, gradually metamorphosing into a more formal but no less lively affair.

According to the flap copy, which sounds suspiciously as though Mencken had a hand in it, the "New Dictionary" "is planned on strictly historical principles, with every possible quotation dated....It omits mere platitudes, and confines itself to authors who had something to say and said it to good effect. But all the immemorial tags and scraps of human wisdom have been included, and special attention is given to the great proverbs of every civilization." (In fact, some of those so-called "proverbs" were home-cooked by none other than H. L. Mencken himself.) Not surprisingly, the finished product is strongly biased in favor of quotations that are witty, cynical or disillusioned.

* Country music. Paul Kingsbury's new "Enyclopedia of Country Music" (Oxford, 634 pages, $49.95), compiled by the staff of Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, sets new standards in the field.

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