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Revealing collection of anecdotes on war. Well-edited volume rewards reader with pleasures of understanding

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The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, edited by Max Hastings. New York: Oxford University Press. 514 pp. $17.95. The title of this magnificent book is misleading. The word ``anecdote'' has trivial connotations: A book of anecdotes is a compilation of little stories that otherwise would not be saved from all-devouring time.

Clifton Fadiman's new collection, ``The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes,'' fits that description. Intended as a companion to Bartlett's ``Familiar Quotations,'' it's a book for browsers and researchers. But ``The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes'' seems to me to be in a class by itself. It's a work of literature. One can't simply browse: The quality of the writing casts the spell of poetry. Although historical, the stories take on the universality of art.

Most collections of anecdotes are arranged alphabetically by person; this book is arranged chronologically. It proceeds from the Bible and the Greeks through the Middle Ages up to the modern period; the last entry is by Max Hastings, the editor. It tells the wry story of June 14, 1982, the last day of the Falklands war.

Many of the anecdotes come from the pens of great writers, many do not. The anecdotes reveal more than the personalities of the tellers. As a whole, they reveal something about mankind.

The unity of effect essential to literature is accomplished, perhaps unwittingly, by the degree and quality of the editing. Hastings took over the job from Lord Ballantrae after his death. Hastings says his first manuscript was twice as long as the one finally published by Oxford University Press. Editing with an eye for quality, Hastings has created an outstanding book.


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