At a time when the works we are urged to read seem to be distinguished more by their sheer weight than their content, it's a pleasure to recommend a book in which each essay asks no more attention than the length of a bus ride to town or the time it takes to heat a frozen pizza. Such a book is Edward Hoagland's ''The Tugman's Passage.''
These essays have all appeared before, either in magazines like Harper's or newspapers like the New York Times, where the briefs in the concluding chapter originated as unsigned editorials.
Hoagland is a writer who has the happy knack for making the most unlikely subjects both entertaining and informative. The title piece, ''The Tugman's Passage,'' is an account of the men who work on the tugs that tow freighters, the rare liners, and the weekly barges of garbage in and out of New York Harbor. Hoagland has made a number of such trips, has talked to the men, watched how the ships can suddenly spin dangerously in one of the narrow passages and how the seagulls provide the main action as the barges are towed out ''ripping open the plastic bags and grabbing the chitlings inside.''
He is adept at capturing the exact sense of a scene - Captain Biagi looking ''spruce on the bridge, where there are always intimations of the nineteenth-century social order . . . '' - or recording a little-known fact: ''. . . it is traditional for top tugboat pilots to be spiffily dressed, so well dressed that it is easy to take the seaman for a wealthy investor stepping on board.'' This ability adds a freshness and depth often lacking elsewhere.
His essay ''On the Mushpan Man'' is a sympathetic correction to the Walt Disney trivialization of Johnny Appleseed, who shrewdly planted his appleseeds where future development was most likely to occur. Born John Chapman in Leominster, Mass., he apparently rather liked the appleseed nickname and as he grew older used it freely himself. Like an Old Testament prophet, he eschewed comfort and riches and relied on people's goodwill as he traveled the countryside spreading the gospel and tending to his seedlings in the small orchards he established through the wilderness.
Hoagland is best at writing on the specific and the particular. His long piece ''The Ridge Slope Fox and the Knifethrower,'' an ambitious attempt to deal with the conflict between the need for solitude and the fear of loneliness, is ultimately disappointing. The techniques so successful with places and people fail when used to tackle something more abstract, and the few other more ruminative pieces suffer from the same flaws.
But ''Tugman's Passage'' is a book of many delights, and the few disappointments are more acutely felt because so much of the other writing has been so good: his ability, for example, to discuss a place in terms that are more profound than a travelogue and more colorful than a dispatch. Thus in Cairo he moves from the past through the present to ponder the future of this legendary city that, together with Egypt, is ''teetering both on the edge of an experiment with post-Koranic democracy and on the brink of famine and total catastrophe, and that it behooves us to wish her well as we have not always done.'' Or his seasonal pieces, which escape the predictable paeans to sunsets and songbirds, as he gives the familiar a new perspective: the porcupines that, on hot days, swim out to the middle of the pond to snack on the lily pads; and the fox transferring her pups to a new den, making sure that she also brings their favorite toys, a jay's foot or a weasel's skull. It is a book to be savored at intervals--a fine offering for those who plead that they have no time to read.