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Make room for these collections on your night table and savor in small doses.

Bedside Reading

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Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: "The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings." The second part of this little verse is problematical, but "Life Stories," edited by David Remnick (Random House, $26.95) makes clear that the world is certainly full of strange characters. This 530-page volume is a collection of 25 of what Remnick thinks are the best Profiles published in The New Yorker since its first issue in 1925. The New Yorker is credited — and credits itself — with the invention of the journalistic form now called a Profile, and during the past 75 years, the magazine has told us about a range of people that runs from Prince Michael Alexandrovitch Dmitry Obolensky Romanoff (actually Harry E. Gurgeson) to Ernest Hemingway to Marlon Brando. It has in the process assigned these subjects to many writers of great skill and fame. Those represented in this book include Truman Capote, John McPhee, Janet Flanner and Wolcott Gibbs (whose profile of Henry Luce with its imitation of Time magazine sentence structure is still widely admired). Fame, however, is not a prerequisite for inclusion in this group. The lead Profile "Mr. Hunter's Grave" describes an old African-American man who is holding on to the memories of a dying Staten Island community of his friends and neighbors. Indeed, the subject's fame does not guarantee the interest in reading about him or her. What matters, these examples clearly show, is a journalist's skill in writing, in providing the central idea, finding a lively lead and wrapping up the essay in a skillful way. Who could do better than Adam Gopnik's account of his psychoanalysis with Max Grosskurth, "one of the oldest, most impressive-looking psychoanalysts in New York?" In 14 pages, Gopnik tells us why he submitted to analysis, what kind of doctor Grosskurth was, and he wraps the profile up in a way that can only inspire admiration in another writer. If we compare this with Kenneth Tynan's 44-page achingly long story of Johnny Carson, we admire Gopnik even more. A caution: "Life Stories" is not a book to sit down and read straight through. It is a bedside book, one to be savored at intervals and to be enjoyed as an anthology of writers at work. Berkley Books has published an anthology of quite another sort. "The Good Parts," ($12.95, paperback) is billed as the "best erotic writing in modern fiction." The editor, J.H. Blair, reminds us that when most of us were young, we would love to find "good parts" in the books we were reading. These steamy selections would be found largely in pulp fiction. Now, however, he says writers such as John Updike and Philip Roth have pushed "erotica to the center stage of American fiction." It is not difficult to find "good parts" and many of those parts are beautifully written. To prove his point he has selected 47 excerpts from the likes of Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo, William Styron, Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. There is, unfortunately, a problem with this collection: The writing is indeed skillful, but the editor seems to have forgotten that descriptions of sex in literature are presented in a context. A series of pages about the mechanics of sex means nothing unless there is such a context. It is hard to see the value of "The Good Parts," except for a very prurient reader or — dare I say it? — as a bedside

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