How useful are picture histories of enormous and complex subjects? Life on earth is rather a plateful, and this book covers it better than the jacket blurb would have you think - though not all that much. You'll read of clams that can jump, spiders that eat birds, a plant that can live for one year with just one day of rain, a male sea worm that lives his life in the snout of his mate . . . You'll learn why ostriches and zebras pal around together . . . A prized addition to your permanent library: over 95,000 words and 1,070 photographs in full color.

As an overview the book will certainly interest a young person making first contact with the subject. It is very well organized and the illustrations are not only profuse and beautiful, but often instructive. Commencing with the cell, heredity, evolution, adaptation and behavior, ecology, and reproduction, it goes on to examine plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates, and ends with a good index. However, no section deals with its subject much more than superficially, and for more complete text will be needed. A reference book this is not, even at the elementary level, though it is certainly a stimulating introduction to its marvelous subject.

This book (originally published in Italy) has not escaped the usual bloopers for which its picture editors, not its authors, are responsible. On page 310, a pilot whale is identified as a sperm whale, an enormous animal which, unlike other whales, has strong teeth. Wrong again.All the toothed whales have strong teeth. (Newsweek, $19.95)

Eve Auchincloss