ENGLISH PUBLIC SCHOOLS by James McConnell (Norton: $19.95, illustrated). This pictorial guide to 25 English public schools (meaning, of course, private schools, as in "Tom Brown's Schooldays" or the movie "If") is an eccentric mix of historical monograph, school-choosing catalogue and coffee-table keepsake. It is as this last that it succeeds best: Many of these ancient schools put the most beautiful American college campuses to shame, though one wishes so many photos of biology field trips, swimming pools and students hunched over desks weren't included. The book is divided into 25 sections, but the color plates don't conform to them, which is confusing. Otherwise McConnell, a former house master at Eton, supplies short histories of each school and takes a stab at portraying school life, but he self-admittedly doesn't take much stock in what the kids have to say (the "irreverence and light-hearted cynicism of the young" calls for "a pinch of salt," he says) and by and large his accounts smack of headmasters' PR for what are venerable institutions with wonderful academic resources, but which have often justified reputations for near-medieval cruelty and snobbery. McConnell dismisses this reality of day-to-day life at such schools as a thing of the past.