Comp. Lit. students and would-be literati along the cocktail party circuit should be warned: Van Doren has not produced one of those compilations of plot synopses, replete with handy biographical and critical insights, that encapsulate ""everything you should know about the world's greatest literary masterpieces."" The distinguished author/critic/teacher/editor loves and respects literature (and its readers) too much for that. What Van Doren has done is put together 143 sprightly essays about 210 of his favorite books, plays, poems, etc., and, more importantly, about just why they are his favorites. His choices are eclectic, to say the least: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Peter Rabbit, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (Van Doren insists on the full title) and The Gettysburg Address. To each essay Van Doren brings an enthusiasm, erudition and idiosyncratic vision that keeps the reader intrigued even when the work under discussion is totally unfamiliar. Discussing Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, for example, Van Doren suggests how the French historian's treatment of his subject can alter the reader's own perceptions of the world today. Nor are the essays an uninterrupted series of superlatives, full of indiscriminate praise. After pointing out that Ulysses is undoubtedly a great work, Van Doren goes on to admit, "". . .the book seems to me to be disorganized and overwrought in many places, and harder to read than it ought to be. . . it may be more enjoyable if you do not work too hard at reading it."" That's the sort of honest reassurance every reader who has ever been intimidated by ""the experts"" needs. On the other hand, Van Doren can be delightfully otherworldly in some of his recommendations. Set a week aside with nothing else to do besides reading, eating and sleeping and read War and Peace, he suggests. ""The book is worth it."" The Joy of Reading is an entrancing tour of many of literature's most imposing monuments with frequent stops along the way to admire and discuss some lesser-known but worthwhile attractions. Throughout the peregrinations, Van Doren makes a knowledgeable, helpful, and often witty guide.