On the occasion of his 80th birthday a year or so ago, writer/critic Pritchett wrote a short autobiographical essay for The New York Times Magazine. His friend Paul Theroux (who contributes a brief introduction) said ""Why not make a small book of it?"" And so here it is: Sir Victor's 25-page piece, ""As Old as the Century,"" with 22 engravings (""The Seasons' Course"") by the late Reynolds Stone. Pritchett offers a charming glimpse of his daily life at 80, still working hard at prose every day, with his wife (of 44 years) doing the typing--""laughing at my bad spelling, inserting sportive words when she can't read my insectile hand. . . ."" He confides an old man's fears: ""We have seen so many of our friends paralysed, collapsing in mind and physically humiliated. Shall we escape?"" He sketches in his past--from work in the ""malodorous leather trade"" during the straitlaced WW I era (""Hypocrisy was a native fruit, if then overripe"") to ""the willful Twenties, the commitals of the Thirties"" and intellectual growth. He notes the dangers of literary culture, of academia. He looks around at civilization in 1981, which seems ""to be breaking up and returning to the bloody world of Shakespeare's Histories. . . ."" And he ends up with the pleasures of old age--when ""we increasingly feel we are strangers and we warm to those who treat us as if we are not."" An eloquent miniature--and perhaps the nth degree in graciously understated gift-books. But, for the sake of readers and libraries on a budget, we'll hope that this essay reappears in a more appropriate context: in a Pritchett essay collection, say, or as an introduction to a volume of his stories.