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Sampler of treats for the serious readers on your gift list. From polar bears to Shakespeare

This year brings the publication of the final volume of a truly remarkable diary begun in 1873 and spanning 70 years. The fourth and final volume of The Diary of Beatrice Webb: 1924-1943, edited by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie (the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 519 pp., $25), is subtitled ``The Wheel of Life.'' Her surprisingly revealing diary proves Beatrice Webb a splendid writer and observer. The MacKenzies' outstanding editing of all four volumes extends even to their selection of photographs, which all but tell a story in themselves. This volume covers, amid much else, the Webbs' famous infatuation with Stalin's Russia, which they visited during these years. The contrast between the continuing public tribute the Webbs felt obliged to pay the socialist paradise and Beatrice's shrewd private assessments of such events as the purge trials increases one's regard for her intelligence and subtlety but is a sobering reminder of the way living thought can be constrained by a public mask. The tragedy that occurred more or less ``under Western eyes,'' eluding the eyes of Western observers like the Webbs who wanted to see good and not evil, has been eloquently documented by Robert Conquest in The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (Oxford University Press, New York, 412 pp., $19.95). One need not agree with all of Mr. Conquest's conclusions to appreciate the painstaking research and the passionate indignation that have gone into this lucid and searing account of the largely man-made famine of 1932-33, in which millions of peasants were deprived of the very grain they grew.

The Webbs' fellow Fabian, playwright George Bernard Shaw, kept diaries of a very different kind. Begun in the years before he became famous, originally set down in Pitman shorthand, they provide a terse, day-by-day account of his comings and goings, down to the price he paid for a cup of tea. Bernard Shaw: The Diaries, 1885-1897, edited and annotated by Stanley Weintraub (Penn State Press, University Park, Pa., 1,241 pp., two volumes, $75), give us a taste of Shaw's almost comically methodical mind-set. His recorded activities include his first trip to the Continent - expenses duly noted - taken in the company of Sidney Webb.

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Glimpses of Shaw at his most Shavian abound in an entertaining collection of his Agitations: Letters to the Press 1875-1950, edited by Dan H. Laurence and James Rambeau (Ungar, New York, 375 pp., $22.50). Subjects range from a spirited defense of the split infinitive to stringent attacks on the institutions of flogging and capital punishment. Some letters are pure genius, some two-thirds crankiness; all display his special talent for irony and invective, whether he is defending the suffragists, carrying on a public debate with G.K. Chesterton, or expounding on his craft as a playwright.

Three very different British institutions - on land, at sea, and on the air - are the subjects of three very different books. No. 10 Downing Street: The Story of a House, (the BBC, London, imported by Salem House, Topsfield, Mass., 192 pp., $18.95), is a handsomely illustrated history of the house with the unprepossessing fa,cade that has been the official residence of British prime ministers ever since it was given to Sir Robert Walpole in 1735. The clear and informative text by BBC parliamentary correspondent Christopher Jones is complemented by pictures that take us behind closed doors and even enable us to indulge in the frivolity of comparing Margaret Thatcher's d'ecor with Edward Heath's.

From C.W.R. Winter, who served as a junior officer on the great ship's maiden voyage in 1936, comes The Queen Mary: Her Early Years Recalled (Norton, New York, 152 pp., $24.95, illustrated). To judge from his account - and from the menus reprinted here - life aboard the liner was even more luxurious in its prewar than its postwar years. We also see the underpinnings unseen by most passengers: pantries, kitchens, switchboards, and boiler rooms, along with the usual scenes of splendor. The author's engaging sense of humor, however, is never overwhelmed by the tendency to gush about the size, power, and grandeur of the vessel, now permanently on view in Long Beach, Calif.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is already the subject of a massive four-volume history by Asa Briggs, based on the wealth of material in the BBC archives. Now, assuming more of a bird's-eye perspective, Lord Briggs gives us a single-volume history of the BBC from its early radio days to the breakup of its monopoly. The BBC: The First Fifty Years (Oxford University Press, New York and London, 439 pp., $24.95) covers 1922 to 1972, leaving out very little, from the technical aspects of broadcasting to the touchy issues of programming, private vs. public broadcasting, and the social impact of television.

Jean-Paul Sartre's attempts to represent the life of Sigmund Freud on film never really reached the screen, although fragments of Sartre's work did find their way into the final version of director John Huston's ``Freud,'' starring Montgomery Clift. In The Freud Scenario, edited by J.B. Pontalis, translated by Quinton Hoare (University of Chicago Press, 549 pp., $24.95), the reader can savor Sartre's original scenario commissioned for the film as well as the additions that Sartre made when Huston demanded cuts. Apart from the fascination of the themes Sartre pursues: Freud's obsession with female hysteria, his relationship with his father and his mentors, his experiences of anti-Semitism, his fear of his own neuroses, Sartre's scenario is remarkable for its sheer lucidity (despite its great length) and for showing how film can be used to explore ideas as well as action.

For a quick plunge into the turbulent, exhilarating waters of contemporary French culture, British journalist Melinda Camber Porter has collected interview articles that she did, mostly for The Times (London) between 1975 and 1985. Through Parisian Eyes: Reflections on Contemporary French Arts and Culture (Oxford University Press, London, 244 pp., $18.95, illustrated) brings us voices from the worlds of film, theater, journalism, publishing, politics, philosophy, and literature, including many active in several of these capacities. The subjects include Sartre, Ionesco, Anouilh, Jean-Paul Aron, Jean-Fran,cois Revel, Edmond Jab`es, Olivier Todd, Louis Malle, Fran,cois Truffaut, and Marguerite Duras. Sometimes, Ms. Porter concludes, Parisians just have to get away from all that scintillating talk merely to get some of their writing done.

Few writers manage to get away to Cape Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay. Here, each fall, the majestic white polar bears gather in profusion. Bears and Men: A Gathering, by poet, novelist, and photographer William Mills (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, N.C., 168 pp., $24.95), includes 50 breathtaking, full-color photographs of these ivory-and-cream-tinted animals in their blue-white habitat of snow. Mills's text, composed of anecdotes, descriptions, reflections, and poems, reveals a mind that has pondered some of the central questions about man's relationship to nature, while the book as a whole conveys the excitement, danger, beauty, and even the boredom of life in the frozen north. This may well be the book that bear-lovers have been waiting for.

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For those who prefer nature in more manageable doses, The Oxford Companion to Gardens, edited by Patrick Goode, Michael Lancaster, and Geoffrey and Susan Jellicoe (Oxford University Press, New York, 637 pp., $49.95, illustrated), describes more than 700 gardens from all over the world and also includes hundreds of entries about gardening. Islamic gardens, Italian gardens, Buddhist gardens, wild and formal gardens, even the Garden of Eden can be found among the 1,500 entries. An endlessly fascinating reference book, both for the richness of its factual information and for the resonances of the concepts treated in its pages.

And, for those who love to linger over precious artifacts, there is Treasures of the Forbidden City (Viking, New York, 262 pp., $75). This imposing, exquisitely produced book is second in a series. The first volume, Palaces of the Forbidden City, explored the imperial palace complex in Peking. ``Treasures'' features 100 imperial artworks, mostly from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties: bronzes, ceramics, painting and calligraphy, enamel, lacquer, jade and ivory carvings, textiles and embroidery. Each item has been carefully photographed in color; many are shown in two or more photographs from different angles and distances. Some of these treasures have never before been exhibited. The commentary is serious and highly informative. Zhu Jiajin is credited as chief compiler, Graham Hutt as consultant editor.

And finally, two books whose appeal should be well-nigh universal. The Book of Psalms, designed by David Fordham (Henry Holt & Co., New York, 240 pp., $19.95), presents these earliest of hymns from the King James Version of the Bible in a lovely format, adorned with colorful, intricately wrought illustrations from a variety of illuminated manuscripts. And in a single, surprisingly convenient volume we have William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford University Press, London, 1,432 pp., illustrated; $35 until Jan. 1; $45 thereafter). This handsome new edition combines the virtues of scrupulous textual scholarship with a spaciously printed, invitingly readable appearance, making it a perfect gift for almost anyone. And a substantial one, too: It weighs more than 7 pounds.

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