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Big finds among small books. Editor's choice

From the moment a book gleams as a possibility in the mind's eye of its author, it's as if the book had become a gift, or at least a given, something to be responsible for, like a child. So when we say books make good gifts, we are saying much in little.

We devote this book review section to books that would make good gifts. The reviews are meant not only to provide a list of titles, but the sorts of discussions one has with oneself when one confronts the windows and shelves of book shops. We've focused on art books because they seem to pose a special temptation at this time of year.

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Art books are usually big and expensive. I like small books, those one finds - otherwise they are hard to find - near the register in a bookstore (where one finds gum and candy at the grocery store). True, these small books are sometimes trashy. I have chosen three whose sugar coating (sharp design, small bulk, sweet price) makes the nut inside even tastier.

This time each year, Bill Henderson of Pushcart Press produces a special small book (his offering from last year, ``The Writer's Quotation Book: A Literary Companion,'' is now in paperback from Penguin). This year it's Rotten Reviews: A Literary Companion (the Pushcart Press: W.W. Norton Company, 93 pp., $12.50). Henderson's working definition of review is generous. ``Rotten Reviews'' includes not only reviews published as such, but comments by authors on other authors from various sources ranging from plays to notebooks - 175 in all.

Since everyone gets reviewed in one way or another, and one's friend, one's spouse, one's child is always one's potential rotten reviewer, and occasionally one dishes it out oneself, this small book should have big appeal.

We read here that ``The Odessa Courier'' greeted ``Anna Karenina'' with: ``Sentimental rubbish.... Show me one page that contains an idea.'' Rudyard Kipling once got a rejection letter from the San Francisco Chronicle that said in part: ``I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language.''

Really rotten reviews are rare: Book review editors try to avoid ad hominem criticism (attacking the author), and get at the content. Perhaps we needn't be so scrupulous. Any publicity usually sells books. Still, I was relieved to see that the author of a book we came down pretty hard on was subsequently awarded a grant for further work in his chosen field.

Beside that smart and witty book, the next one may look naive. The Quiet Eye: A Way of Looking at Pictures, by Sylvia Shaw Judson (Regnery Gateway, Chicago, unnumbered pages, $8.95), speaks from within the Quaker community. Twenty years ago Ms. Judson felt members of the Society of Friends had deprived themselves unnaturally of the joys of looking at art. ``The Quiet Eye'' was meant to show them how to get at the essence of visual art. Since one needn't be a Quaker to so deprive oneself - mere busyness seems reason enough - ``The Quiet Eye'' deserves this reissue.

Judson concludes her introduction by saying, ``If those whose tradition has placed the emphasis on spiritual at the expense of aesthetic values could enjoy this book for its aesthetic quality, and those who are usually interested only in aesthetic values could find in it a spiritual quality, I should feel rewarded.''

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``The Quiet Eye'' consists of 33 pictures - 30 double-page spreads - in which a work of art (a painting, a piece of sculpture) is matched with a passage from a wide variety of sources: the Bible, Plato, Rilke, Wordsworth, Chinese sayings, and so forth. Observing the aesthetic principle that two unlike things when juxtaposed may throw each other into relief, Judson designed the pages of ``The Quiet Eye'' to induce moments of reflection.

For example, Duccio's ``The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew'' is on the right and a verse from John G. Whittier's hymn ``In simple trust like theirs who heard/ Beside the Syrian sea'' is on the left. (The color reproductions are good.) Bancusi's polished and oddly cut sphere called ``The Newborn'' is on the right, while facing it one finds Plato's phrase ``-but beauty absolute, separate, simple and everlasting.''

``The Quiet Eye'' was composed in the early '50s in praise of what Judson called ``divine ordinariness.'' First published in large format, it seems to have found its own small, quiet proportions in this new edition.

The red jacket of Roscoe C. Born's guide for writers announces something else altogether. This book does not need to meet the test of time; it aleady has, for everything it says comes from Mr. Born's experience as a writer, editor, and editorial consultant. The Suspended Sentence: A Guide for Writers (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 214 pp., $13.95) in 19 short chapters discusses all the essentials, from word choice to organization. Simultaneously pithy and elegant, it's also kind: In one passage Born recalls how he himself learned to write, and he never forgets that the experience can be an excruciating one.

We not only get definitive advice about the classic pratfalls - dangling modifiers, adverbs, and so on - but learn about ``the interest deadline,'' or the psychological line, somewhere invisible in the first two paragraphs, and how to lure the reader beyond it to the end.

Born tells us how to make the best use of the indispensable but often unread H.W. Fowler's ``Modern English Usage'': ``In the odd half hour or so, while you're waiting for the next event on your schedule, let the book fall open and see where it leads.'' Born's book has already earned its place next to Fowler on the short shelf of classics for writers.

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