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Now in paper

Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great, by Arther Ferrill. New York: Thames & Hudson, dist. Norton. 240 pp. Illustrated. $10.95. This lively and lucid book is not a study of the roots of aggression, but a look at military history beginning with prehistoric times. From a wide range of written and archaeological sources, Ferrill reconstructs the tactics and the strategies -- both defensive and offensive -- of ancient Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, and classical Greece. He contends that, despite the centuries of ``progress'' in weaponry separating Alexander the Great from Napoleon, Alexander's style of warfare -- blending Greek heavy infantry with the more sophisticated cavalry and skirmishers used by Near Eastern empires -- was unsurpassed as late as the battle of Waterloo. Whether or not one finds his thesis ultimately convincing, Ferrill's argument is engaging and his presentation of bygone battles is clear, easy to follow, and intriguing enough to entice even the reader who is not a military history buff. Labyrinths of Iron: Subways in History, Myth, Technology, and War, by Benson Bobrick. New York: Quill/William Morrow. 352 pp. Illustrated. $10.95.

A great deal of imagination and erudition come together in this unusual history of subways, from ancient labyrinths and water channels to the mines and tunnels of the Industrial Revolution and the engineering marvels of the 19th and 20th centuries. The text is interlarded with excellent illustrations, resonant with quotations from poetry and prose, and filled with fascinating, often hair-raising stories of the dangers faced by those who ventured beneath earth and water to build these subterranean passageways. As fully alive to the apocalyptic and infernal overtones of this man-made ``underworld'' as it is to the beauty and ingenuity of such splendid subways as Mexico City's, this book is also a kind of meditation on the triumphs and perils of industrial civilization. The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, by David Bindman, assisted by Deirdre Toomey, with 765 illustrations. New York: Thames & Hudson, dist. Norton. 494 pp. $35.

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The process of engraving his poetry and pictures to achieve precisely the results he intended was one of the ways in which William Blake sought to render his imaginative vision in concrete form. This collection includes virtually all the plates that Blake designed, excluding his engravings of the designs of other artists. All are in black and white, although Blake finished many in color. What disappointment one feels about the lack of color is partly compensated for by the sumptuousness of the selection and partly mollified by remembering Blake's own dictum that line is the essence of visual art (an apt belief for an engraver!). And there is great and wonderful variety here, from the classical-looking figures with which he illustrated an edition of Edward Young's ``Night Thoughts'' to the ``living pages'' of his own hand-lettered prophetic books, which blended poem and pictures on a single page. Lives of Modern Women, Emma Tennant, general editor. New York: Penguin. $4.95 each. Hannah Arendt, by Derwent May. 139 pp. Colette, by Allan Massie. 152 pp. Mme Sun Yat-sen, by Jung Chang, with Jon Halliday. 144 pp. All illustrated.

How often, when one wants to learn more about a well-known figure, one wishes for something between a full-scale biography and a tantalizing brief entry in a reference book! These three books in the ``Lives of Modern Women'' series are concise, convenient introductions, written with the blend of sympathy and critical questioning with which a good biographer approaches his subject. They err, perhaps, on the side of sympathy, as is generally preferable in an introductory work, but they honestly engage the controversial aspects of their subjects' lives as well, be it Colette's early immersion in the trashy world of her ``Claudine'' novels or Mme. Sun Yat-sen's behavior vis-`a-vis Chairman Mao. Also impressive is the unobtrusive skill with which Derwent May elucidates the tricky crosscurrents of Hannah Arendt's thought. Industriekultur: Peter Behrens and the AEG, 1907-1914, by Tilmann Buddensieg in collaboration with Henning Rogge, with contributions by Gabriele Heidecker, Karin Wilhelm, Sabine Bohle, and Fritz Neumeyer, translated by Iain Boyd Whyte. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press. 520 pp. Ilustrated. $27.50.

In 1907, when the Allgemeine Elektricit"ats Gessellschaft (Germany's equivalent of Edison's General Electric) asked Peter Behrens to serve as its artistic director, an extraordinary collaboration between art and industry was born. Product designer, graphic artist, and architect, Behrens (1868-1940) turned his hand to everything from logos and brochures to arc-lamps, railway cars, power stations, and factories. A pioneer of the modern quest to untie beauty and functionalism, Behrens counted among his pupils Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Gropius, who went on to found the Bauhaus. This strikingly designed book includes a catalog of Behrens's work in architecture, product design, and graphics, plus selections from his writing and from the reactions of his contemporaries. It is prefaced by essays that highlight aspects of Behrens's enterprise, from his designs for workers' housing to the intriguing contrast between his aesthetic commitment to the machine age and the skepticism of Walther Rathenau, his cultivated employer, who suspected that mass production threatened aesthetic values.