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January 26, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

"We are human, we need and love language," wrote poet and translator Marcia Falk in one of my favorite aphorisms. The same credo suffuses the work of William H. Gass in Habitations of the Word (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone: $8.95), the most recent collection of essays by a master of criticism and kinetic prose who is at once provocative, enlightening and uncompromising in his precision and his predilections. Here, Gass explores the immense power of language in literature, culture and consciousness:

"With words we follow the metaled links of honest argument and harken with the same ear to the huckster's pitch and the king's command," he writes. "Yet how are we to understand an activity which seems as natural as making water; and on the surface so much like the hoot and holler of the crowd as to be quite indistinct from churchy verses, accepted sentiment, song-stuff, speeches, gossip, news; when in fact it is rare as eclipses, unnatural as the gait of a classical dancer, and otherwise so far from any point of contact with ordinary rhyme and verbal rattle that we might more acceptably compare Columbus with a requiem, or iodine with Indiana."

His point, I think, is that language is only potentially meaningful and enduring. (" 'Geronimo,' we shout, falling through the floor of the plane. Just as well: 'Philadelphia!' Why not: 'mashie niblick'?")

To Gass, words are tools of civilization, a sentence has a soul of its own, and "the novel is a mind, like a Leibnizean monad, metaphorically aware of the world." But Gass does not merely celebrate language; quite the contrary, he is gifted with the nagging intellectual curiosity that prompts a precocious child to take apart a pocket watch to see what makes it tick. Thus, for example, we are treated to a painstaking analysis of the use and abuse of the word and in contemporary literature. What Gass writes in justification of his essay on that humble conjunction rather neatly embodies the aspirations (and the achievements) of "Habitations of the Word":

"The unwatched word is meaningless--a noise in the nose--it falls on the page as it pleases, while the writer is worrying about nouns and verbs, welfare checks or a love affair; whereas the watched word has many meanings, some of them profound; it has a wide range of functions, some of them essential; it has many lessons to teach us about language, some of them surprising; and it has metaphysical significance of an even salutary sort."

To any new or prospective parent who is intimidated by the delicate mystery of new life, I happily and heartily recommend The Amazing Newborn (Addison-Wesley: $10.95) by the prominent neonatologist Dr. Marshall H. Klaus, and Phyllis H. Klaus, a psychotherapist and social worker. Although "The Amazing Newborn" draws on pioneering medical research and the substantial clinical experience of its authors, this elegant, compassionate and enchanting little book is actually a lyrical celebration of the unsuspected gifts of the newborn baby: "Within the first hour of life, normal infants have a prolonged period of quiet alertness, averaging forty minutes, during which they look directly at their mother's and father's face and eyes and can respond to voices," write the Klauses. "It is as though newborns had rehearsed the perfect approach to the first meeting with their parents." Indeed, with its 125 photographs of babies less than 10 days old--and its perceptive advice on what a newborn can (and cannot) do--"The Amazing Newborn" is an ideal rehearsal for the moment of birth.

I have only one mild complaint--the book's subtitle, "Making the Most of the First Weeks of Life," seems to mark the book as one of those loathsome infant improvement manuals that promise a better baby than the one God gave you. "The Amazing Newborn" is decidedly not a better baby book; rather, it is a gentle and realistic appreciation of infants who thrive on love and attention and nurturing, not flash cards and baby aerobics.

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