Travelers, late-night readers take heart - good anthologies are still being published

The anthology, the sine qua non of summer hammock reading, is fast disappearing from booksellers' shelves. In part it's a change in taste that dictates its disappearance; in part it's the logistics of the current publishing economy. Still, for those who find the one-volume compendium a good traveling companion or a comfortable bedside staple, all is not lost.

''When the right occasion arises to publish an anthology, someone will do it, '' says Viking editor Gerald Howard. ''But no publisher sets out to do an anthology per se anymore because permission costs are so high, and sales are usually low.'' Viking, a pioneer in anthologies in the 1940s with the Viking Portable Library, this year has Writers of the Purple Sage (hard cover, $17.95; paper, $7.95) on its list for November. The book introduces ''the post-Wallace Stegner new school of Western writers,'' says Mr. Howard, and includes memoirs and nonfiction as well as short stories. Also on the Viking list for November is The Penguin Book of Contemporary Essays ($19.95), edited by Maureen Howard.

Young Delacorte editor Jane Rosenman describes the anthology situation this way: ''The lovely, literate anthology that was the perfect gift item for kids graduating high school or college seems old-fashioned now. They want a 'Star Wars' scrapbook. Anthologies have very little bookstore sale, and we can't afford to publish books that sell only to libraries. But anthologies are something a smaller publisher might pick up.''

One small, unusually successful publisher, Carroll & Graf, has included anthologies on its list. The house, which was new this year, published The Novels and Plays of Saki ($8.95), Late Blooming Flowers, a collection of Chekhov stories ($8.95), and You Must Know Everything ($8.95), stories by Isaac Babel. But editor-publisher Kent Carroll says he doesn't perceive a revival of the anthology form since ''by their very nature, they can be difficult. People prefer a single voice, a single point of view. It may be that we see so many when we're in school that they last us the rest of our lives.''

Donald Lamm, chairman of the board and president of W. W. Norton, publisher of that quintessence of textbooks, ''The Norton Anthology of English Literature, '' adds that Norton may indeed have influenced the decline of the trade book anthology, because many students kept their books after graduation, presumably wanting no other anthologies on their shelves. But he calls reports of the death of the trade book compendium ''a premature obituary,'' noting, ''The action has simply shifted to the paperback.'' Norton in 1985 will publish an anthology of poems to be read aloud and a collection of stories about battles.

Mr. Lamm sees the heyday of the popular anthology in the 1940s and 1950s as a time of ''middlebrow reading during and after the war, when people who hadn't gone to college made up for lost time.'' Austin Olney, director of trade books for Houghton Mifflin, agrees that the '40s and '50s brought literature to a much broader audience, to people not brought up reading books. One of the Houghton Mifflin anthologies, the classic The Practical Cogitator, was designed for members of the World War II armed forces by editors Ferris Greenslet and Charles Curtis Jr. Reissued in paper this year, ''The Practical Cogitator,'' ($8.95) is a sophisticated compendium of philosophy and aphorisms from Plato to Sartre and Paul Tillich, and it weathers well the nearly 40 years since it was originally published. In October, Houghton Mifflin will bring out the latest in its series of Best American Short Stories volumes, this one edited by John Updike. On its 1985 list is a treasury of great short stories of the 20th century, edited by Clifton Fadiman.

Some anthologies that are out of print but worth the search on library shelves or in secondhand bookstores are: A Treasury of Great Reporting (Simon & Schuster), which includes press coverage of the trial of Peter Zenger, the Boston Tea Party, and the World War II Battle of the Bulge; Fifty Years, a collection of Knopf novels, novellas, poetry, and essays; A Century of the Essay , edited by David Daiches (Harcourt, Brace) including Bertrand Russell's ''A Free Man's Worship,'' and T. S. Eliot on Andrew Marvell; The Traveller's Library (Doubleday), edited by Somerset Maugham, with Arnold Bennett's ''The Old Wives' Tale,'' a brace of Katherine Mansfield short stories, and David Garnett's ''Lady Into Fox''; and Reader's Companion, edited by Louis Kronenberger (Viking Portable Library).

Some recommended in-print anthologies:

A Subtreasury of American Humor, edited by E. B. and Katherine White (G. P. Putnam, $4.95).

Best of Modern Humor, edited by Mordecai Richler (Knopf, $20).

Haiku, edited by R. M. Blyth (Hokuseido Press, 4 vols., $5.95 each).

Modern Irish Short Stories, edited by Ben Forkner (Penguin, $6.95).

A Treasury of Russian Literature (Vanguard Press, $17.95).

Composers on Music, edited by Sam Morgenstern (Pantheon, $8.95).

Artists on Art, edited by Robert Goldwater (Pantheon, $7.95).

Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories (Ohio University Press, edited by Jack Sullivan, $25.95, hardcover; $12.95, paper).

A Great Treasury of Western Thought, edited by Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren (R. R. Bowker, $37.50).

And still to come is the World Treasury of Children's Literature, edited by Clifton Fadiman (Little, Brown, $40).

The news then for the devotee who wants to dip into a collection that may range from Montaigne to Mark Twain is that the book can be found, but it may be necessary to search harder than usual to find the perfect volume for you.

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