SOME PEOPLE have a gift for friendship. A few have a further gift. They not only readily make friends, they bring out the best in anyone they meet, so that to be in their presence is more or less to become one's ideal self.

Sir Sydney Cockerell had this double gift, and he had it in a particularly fortunate time and place. Born a coal merchant's son in Victorian England, he grew up to be something we hardly have a word for in our language--not just a man of letters, but a man of the arts. His great interests as a young man were illuminated manuscripts, architecture, bookbinding (he was William Morris' secretary), and poetry. In 1908, at the age of 41, he became director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and for the next three decades spent much of his time thinking about paintings, sculpture, and prints. His ability gently to extract these objects from rich Englishmen became legendary. He transformed the Fitzwilliam into the distinguished institution it now is.

What was so fortunate about Cockerell's time was that friends still normally communicated by letter. And what was so fortunate about place was that England was still at the height of self-assurance--the present contraction into envy and doubt had not yet occurred. At least in the upper and middle classes, generosity of spirit was routine.

In this golden time and place, Cockerell kept up a steady correspondence with whole bunches of interesting people. Letters poured in. George Bernard Shaw used him as a confidante. So did T.H. White--he was one of the few human beings the author of The Once and Future King had much use for. So did the poet Siegfried Sassoon. So did the young Alec Guinness, and Freya Stark, and Walter de la Mare. But poets, novelists, playwrights, and actors were only the beginning. There was an enclosed Benedictine nun, Dame Laurentia McLachlan, with whom Cockerell had a lively correspondence for 46 years. (Each wrote the other about 750 letters.) There were relatively obscure people like William Ivins, for many years Keeper of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum in New York; like the talented bookbinder Katie Adams; like the minor English politician Lord Kennet of the Dene.

The Best of Friends contains some hundreds of the letters these people wrote Sydney Cockerell between 1900 and 1954, and a few of his replies. I can hardly think of a nicer book for bedtime reading. If "civilization" means anything at all, it means the kind of environment that fosters communications like this. There is so much affection, intelligence, humor, and ripe wisdom in these letters as to make one actually homesick for the period. There is also the fascination of reading comments by one distinguished person about another, here on a higher level than in your usual political memoir or book of name-dropping.

To take a complex example, Cockerell delighted in C.M. Doughty's Arabia Deserta (naturally he had known Doughty), and often pushed his friends to read it. In 1944, he finally got Shaw started, at an advanced age, and in two successive letters Shaw gives the book an elaborate stamp of approval. Somehow T.H. White heard about this, and in his next letter he commented, "How odd of Shaw to wait till he was 88 before reading Doughty. On the whole I would not call him an educated man, for his age."

The thread that holds the book together is Sydney Cockerell himself. Though you see so few of his own letters, reflections of him constantly appear in the letters to him. There he is in the middle, the perfect listener and appreciator, to whom Freya Stark brilliantly desribes the conference that led to the independence of India, and Alec Guinness--movingly--the effect of a toy wooden duck on the children of a war-ravaged Greek village in 1944. He sends presents, usually books. He introduces one friend to another--the playwright to the nun, for example. The nun being enclosed, the playwright had to go to Stanbrook Abbey, and talk through a double grille. Soon the two are calling each other Brother Bernard and Sister Laurentia, and having a correspondence of their own.

But there are other threads as well. Nearly every letter touches one way or another on books, either as literature or as esthetic objects in their own right. A surprising number of the friends share Cockerell's own interest in the physical act of writing--that is, they are calligraphers or at least lovers of calligraphy. Lord Kennet of the Dene, having lost his right arm in the First World War, learns to write a beautiful half-uncial script with his left. Siegfried Sassoon, looking at a Latin book once owned and signed by Thomas Hardy (Cockerell has just sent it to him), writes, "That signature of his is like order in chaos, isn't it? (& craftsmanship in a world of machines!)" Dame Laurentia, an expert and a medievalist, says casually, "I cannot warm up to any writing later than the 12th century, except the Italian 15th century." Ivins, the American, devotes a whole letter to comparing "real" handwriting to the show-pieces of the professionals. He has some samples of writing by people like the Sforzas, dukes of Milan, in the 16th century. "How much more wonderful they were," he says, "than the writing-books. Written, so to say, with the voices of authority, and with any pen whatever, new-sharpened or worn to a stump, but the swing all there, adapting itself as something alive to the quill that chance brought under the hand. Can it be that the decay (or whatever) of handwriting can be traced to the incoming of metal nibs that don't wear rapidly and idiosyncratically in use . . .? I'm sure that fellows such as the mature Titians and Rembrandts painteddwith almost any brushes they picked up, just as they drew with anything that would make a mark. For them it was the will of the gesture that counted, not its mechanical perfection."

In The Best of Friends, we are in a very different world than that of the word-processor--a slower world and perhaps a more human one.

In the end, it's the humanity of it that makes the book so delightful. Sydney Cockerell gave his friends both attention and love, and they returned it with interest. Such loving attention to the courtesies and nuances of friendship. Such receptivity to other minds. Such delight in art and nature both. One would wish these part of any life.

Bernard Berenson, meaning to describe only himself, gives the flavor of the whole book in a letter he wrote Cockerell in 1946. Berenson was 81, living in the poverty of postwar Italy; Cockerell 79, surrounded by the austerity of postwar England.

"I am ageing," Berenson wrote, "getting feebler, more jumpy, too curious about events of all kinds, see too many people, undertake too much, but between aches pains & exhaustion enjoy life ecstatically. How can one avoid it, living in this beautiful world?"

The beauty was in Berenson's eye. Read this book, and some of it will be in yours.