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The Courage of Turtles, by Edward Hoagland. San Francisco, California: Northpoint Press. 239 pp. $9.50 (paper). This is a book of essays. It is also a work of art.

If Edward Hoagland didn't write well, he wouldn't be worth reading. He has absolutely no claim on our attention other than as an artist -- no cause, no agenda, no selling point. He was a rich kid in Stamford, Conn., before he slummed with Barnum & Bailey. He stuttered; perhaps he still does. He regrets the way he handled his first marriage. He refuses to make one of his sentences do the work of two.

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He may make you uncomfortable because he has noticed something about himself, or maybe about a group you belong to. Nothing could be further from his mind.

It's almost poetic when he writes about being in crowds.

He matured as a writer when the Jews were first getting recognized; as a WASP among Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Sam Astrakhan, and others, he suffered. When he told editors that Saul Bellow liked his stuff, they didn't believe him.

That was 30 years ago.

Now Hoagland suffers with the best, because reading is no longer just a popular way of passing time. What he calls ``the arts of single sensibility'' are neglected for movies, liner notes, poetry readings.

He writes on. The dwindling role of author suits him; he likes the privacy, and besides, as Yvor Winters pointed out, ``so, your solitude's defined.'' Hoagland writes, one feels, because writing is his way of noticing things. Some of the things he notices may seem too private, but then Hoagland has made no promises and owes no debts. He has lived close enough to the times to write well about a variety of subjects, as his chapter titles suggest: ``The Problem of the Golden Rule''; ``On Not Being a Jew''; ``The Lapping, Itchy Edge of Love.''

He's impossible to skim. The eye -- or the heart -- keeps snagging on something. ``I had been carrying the card since 1950, when Edith Moriarty of Norwalk, Connecticut, signed it for me,'' he writes in ``The Draftcard Gesture.'' Signed it for me -- she did, did she? I like that.

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In ``Violence, Violence,'' he confesses, ``I'm not one of those professional eye-witnesses who is willing to watch anything just on the grounds that it is happening.'' He is not a journalist, old or new. He doesn't watch, he notices.

The difference is one of temperature. Hoagland is like the turtle in the title essay. ``Turtles are a kind of bird with the governor turned low.'' He is not a snake, ``dryly silent and priapic.'' Not an alligator: ``They're so eager that they get the jitters. . . .'' Not a frog, ``depressingly defenseless.'' No, turtles ``have a penguin's alertness, combined with a build like a Brontosaurus when they rise up on tiptoe.''

Turtles have presence. Mr. Hoagland's book has presence. I expect to see it often this summer. On the dashboards of cars parked at the convenience store. Peeking out of beach bags. Just lying around, like turtles.

Tom D'Evelyn edits the Monitor's book pages.

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