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EDITOR'S CHOICE

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (Bantam, 216 pages, $35). If Hawking is to be believed (and why on earth not?), no one was more shocked than he at the best-seller status of his 1988 book, "A Brief History of Time." At the same time, he says, with characteristic flinty wit, "I didn't want to write 'Son of Brief History' and 'A Slightly Longer History of Time,' " despite the entreaties of many to write a sequel. The intent here was to write "a different kind of book that might be easier to understand" in a broad picture of emerging ideas of the universe "without a lot of mathematical baggage."

Imagine then, in a work of general science, such extraordinarily difficult material illustrated wittily and written wittily, too. A quick and early instance: Hawking tells us about post-Einsteinian experiments in which two accurate clocks were flown in opposite directions around the earth and returned showing slightly different times. Says Hawking, "They might suggest if one wanted to live longer, one should keep flying to the east so that the plane's speed is added to the Earth's rotation. However, the tiny fraction of a second one would gain would be more than canceled by eating airline meals."

By the time one has followed the remarkable writer/physicist through such recondite matters as supersymmetry, string theory, M-theory, imaginary time, wormholes and P-branes, one has encountered a surprisingly readable tour through immensely difficult matters, not to mention more than one's share of fascinating debunkings. For example, Einstein famously said God does not play dice with the universe. Hawking says, though, the universe may very well be a big casino. Nor, he says, will the future of science be like "the comforting picture painted in 'Star Trek,' " full of "humanoid races." Instead, we'll be "on our own but rapidly developing in biological or electronic complexity." Such clear science writing would be a marvel even if Hawking weren't generally acknowledged by peers to be one of the leading physicists of the day.

Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages selected by Harold Bloom (Scribner, 573 pages, $27.50). No fan of Harry Potter, the tirelessly erudite, prolific (and contrarian) literary critic has created a gloriously eccentric anthology that is both an act of war and nostalgic revisitation of the literature that made him literary in the first place.

It is an act of intellectual war because, as he says in the introduction, "I do not accept the category of 'children's literature,' which had some use and distinction a century ago but now all too often is a mask for the dumbing down that is destroying our literary culture. Most of what is now commercially offered as children's literature would be inadequate for any reader of any age at any time." Strong polemics there, and Bloom backs it up with stories and poems that can both awaken young literary intelligences (even those that were never as ridiculously hypertrophied as his) and remain delightful and rewarding and memorable throughout a reading lifetime. He arranges them by season and includes an enormously wide range of writers (but not such resolutely adult fare as Chekhov, Donne and, most oddly, Emily Dickinson, because they can be read on too many levels).

There's no use complaining when such an anthology can only find room for one Poe story -- "William Wilson" -- and no room at all for Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" (a poem young people always gravitate to). Bloom wouldn't be Bloom if his anthology weren't as wildly personal and debatable as the larger points he makes. What no one can deny is that his love of literature is both magnificent and virulently contagious -- that his eloquently crankish bluster is, in itself, an inspiring specimen of the individualism and distinction literature makes possible.

-- Jeff Simon