Galbraith: Four lives and still counting; A Life in Our Times, by John Kenneth Galbraith. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $16.95.

By , Geoffrey Colvin is on the staff of Fortune magazine.

While most of Professor Galbraith's 20 previous books have at least touched on the personal, there has always remained some understandable confusion among those of us outside his immediate family about the details of the three or four lives he has been simultaneously leading during the last 40 years. The confusion is now dispelled.

In "A Life in Our Times" the professor has done what it would be virtually impossible for anyone else to do: He has assembled a well-nigh complete record of what he has been up to, professionally at least, since leaving his family's Ontario farm in 1926.

The account is fascinating for several reasons, among them the many surprises is contains. One would not suspect, for example, that nearly all of Galbraith's formal education centered on aggriculture and agricultural economics. His loftier-sounding honoray degrees, of which he may hold a record number, obscure the fact. Further, the star professor was hardly a star student. He tells of talking with one of his college instructors some 30 years after graduation, when Galbraith was receiving yet another honorary degree: "He shook his walking stick in a menacing way and said, 'Well, if I had my way they'd be taking away the degree you have.'"

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Regardless of the narrative's surprise value from page to page, it consistently holds the distinctive Galbraith style that makes all his books read like a nippy breeze. He refers to his "fatal fluency," which over the years has caused his being pressed into service as a writer or ghostwriter. It is a style of pure charm, one that can sustain a reader over the most gossamer substance, and in this book it has done a little more sustaining than one would like. At about the lenght of "Great Expectations," the book is substantial read. Trimming of overfull detail would have helped.

But this is a quibble. In fact the book rarely bogs down, if only by virtue of its usually lively description of sometimes mundane events.It takes us at a steady clip from Galbraith's youth in southern Ontario to his higher education at Berkeley and finally east to Harvard and Washington in 1934.

Since then he has spent much of his time traveling that 400-mile hallway between his offices. We learn (at perhaps excessive length) of his adventures as the nation's "prize czar," more or less in charge of preventing inflation during World War II while still in his early 30s. Later, he writes speeches for Adlai Stevenson, then for John Kennedy, under whom he is ambassador to India.

In the following years he becomes a force in Democratic national politics, but he decides not to run for the Senate despite the urgings of George Alken and Ted Kennedy.In the meantime, of course, he is teaching at Harvard and other institutions while turning out books and articles at a prodigious rate.

All is told with an unconvincing patina of modesty -- after all, he tells us in the early pages of his "fear, . . . which I never quite suppressed, that my superiority would not be recognized" -- but with such deadpan good humor that one can't object.

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