Splendid distillation of a much-admired, little-read history by Sir Winston [BY]By Pamela Marsh

The Island Race, by Winston S. Churchill. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company. 312 pp. $24.95. ``The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.''

There's a good Churchillian pronouncement for you: short, to the point, ringing with optimism, and (of course) a splendid justification for bothering with history at all. It's the sentence that ends ``The Island Race,'' a distillation of Sir Winston's multivolumed ``A History of the English Speaking Peoples'' -- surely one of this century's most admired and least-read literary masterpieces.

Perhaps this much shortened version (originally published in 1964) will have a better chance with today's readers. Publisher and printer have gone all out to make the format match the content. The four original volumes of concentrated type have been compressed into one 312-page book. Granted, the pages are the giant-family-size traditional at this time of year. But the type is large and an unusually generous share of space is taken up by illustrations from old manuscripts, early drawings, photographs, p aintings, and the reproduction is excellent.

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The change of title more or less explains how the pruning was done. A history of ``The Island Race'' demands less verbiage than a history of the whole English-speaking peoples, and most of the text appears to come from Volume 3 of the original work. Only by a scholarly comparison of all the volumes could we judge how much or how little the reader has lost.

But, unmistakably, here is the legitimate Churchill tone of voice and his skill at grabbing our attention with a careful use of words: ``On August 6, the Army marched on London and everything [watch out; surprise coming] but their problems fell prostrated before them.''

This short edition retains, I am happy to see, some of my favorite Churchillian quotes from great men. The Earl of Chatham, for instance, in his last speech before Parliament on April 7, 1778, maintained: ``My lords, if I were an American as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country I never would lay down my arms -- never, never, never.''

Retained, too, are some moments when Churchill grabs us by the sleeve to point out the turning points of history: ``With the Reformation, the notion that it might be a duty to disobey the established order on the grounds of private conviction became for the first time since the conversion to Christianity of the Roman Empire the belief of a great number.''

This history ends before the author had made his mark on events. But there is reference to his contribution in another quotation from Burke: ``The means by which Providence raises a nation to greatness,'' Churchill writes, ``are the virtues infused into great men.''

This book reminds us that men -- and writers -- of Churchill's caliber are rare indeed.

Pamela Marsh is former editor of the Monitor's International Edition.

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