FOR YEARS JOHN BARTLETT's Familiar Quotations (12th edition) has lived next to my family of dictionaries as an occasional consultant and secret confederate. But until this 15th edition arrived, I was ignorant of the book. I had never tried reading it. I had never pondered "Bartlett's." It's full of surprises.

The first is that the title is wrong. They're not familiar. There are 22,500 quotations in the new edition, but fewer than several hundred are common or familiar. How many quotations, for example, do you know from Black Elk, Fisher Ames, Ptahhotpe, Charles Didbin, and Letitia Landon? Recognize these? "Enclosed/ In a tumultuous privacy of storm." "War is a contagion." "I gave commands; then all smiles stopped altogether." They are from Emerson, F. D. R., and Robert Browning.

When Cristopher Morley took over the editing of the 11th edition in 1937 he changed the rules of familiarity John Bartlett imposed when he published the first Familiar Quotations in 1853.

Morley decided that "Bartlett's" also should include quotations "distinctly worthy of perpetuation." Since then the book has become an anthology of quotations partly familiar and partly chosen in response to fashion and the idiosyncrasies of its various editors. Morley, by the way, gave big play to his fellow editors of the Saturdy Review . William Rose Benet got two full pages; Stephen Vincent Benet, nearly three; a half page each went to Bernard De Voto and Henry Seidel Canby. Morley gave himself more than a full page, space equal to that of Woodrow Wilson, Mary Baker Eddy and Ulysses S. Grant combined. (In this new edition Morley gets about three inches. None of the quotations is familiar or, to me, worthy of perpetuation.)

Another discovery, although it now seems thoughtless not to have noticed, is that "Bartlett's" is primarily a literary work, and a highly restrictive one at that. It was born of and still lives in English literature and the Judeo-Christian tradition. John Bartlett originally gave a third of his book to the Bible and Shakespeare. Emily Morison Beck, who edited this edition as well as the 14th, follows the founder's lead. She devotes 47 pages to the Bible and 66 pages to Shakespeare. Milton gets 12 pages and Pope, nine. Contrast these numbers to those for the Koran , two pages; the Bhagavad Gita , one; Cervantes, three; Rousseau and Tolstoy, one page each.

You will also have to look long and hard to find painters, sculptors and scientists in "Bartlett's." Matisse gets two inches and Frank Lloyd Wright has one entry. Picasso and Renoir are here, but Monet, Dali, Henry Moore and the Wyeths apparently have said nothing of import. Of the some 200 Nobel Prize winners in medicine, physics, chemistry and economics since 1901, less than a dozen are cited. Most of the Nobel laureates in literature are absent as well. Only those who have reached large audiences in the U.S., such as Boris Pasternak, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett, find here. And for whatever reason -- blame Western culture, blame the U.S. publishing industry (most quotations come from books), or blame Mrs. Beck -- "Bartlett's" is not the place to look for verbal women. Only around 205 of the more than 2400 authors are females.

Beck's 15th edition of "Bartlett's" resembles in all substantive ways the the three previous editions I've examined, but there are some significant differences.

The 15th is the biggest ever. The page size is larger and therefore the book holds about 11.5 percent more material than its predecessors. The most telling change, however, is in the makeup of its contemporary authors. In the previous edition, the careers of 213 contemporary authors were distributed as follows: 26 percent poets 36 percent novelists 33 percent politicians and others 5 percent entertainers and show business personalities

In the 15th edition for a comparable period of years the careers of 303 contemporary authors are distributed this way: 20 percent poets 43 percent novelists 22 percent politicians and others 15 percent entertainers and show business personalities

"Barlett's" as edited by Emily Morison Beck reflects obvious trends among the U.S. intelligentsia. The language as well as the credibility of politicians is eroding. Novelists are becoming public personalities. Television and pop music have provided the country with a new group of cultural articulators. However, to argue that Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin Mick Jagger, Liv Ullmann, Liberace, Walter Cronkite and some 40 other show business types have made memorable utterances is silly.

The decline in the percentage of poets is misleading. Beck lets her poets ramble. While I haven't calculated ratios, poets receive three to five times more space per entry than any other category of contributors. Examples: Marianne Moore gets three columns, and Henry Kissinger gets about three inches; Ezra Pound gets nearly three columns, and Eleanor Roosevelt gets three inches. Beck's poetry preferences seem to me eccentric, if not strange. She devotes two full pages to Richard Wilbur and gives William Carlos Williams less than a column and Herbert Spencer less than a page. Beck, by the way, includes more than a page of quotations from books by her father, Samuel Eliot Morison, but gives only three inches to Trotsky, four inches to Stalin, and completely leaves out Ronald Reagan, Claude Levi-Straus, Harry Stack Sullivan, Alfred Adler and Jean Piaget.

She over-quotes John Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and Robert Frost. And she under-quotes three of the most quotable Americans who ever lived: Will Rogers, Elbert Hubbard, and H. L. Mencken. In the area of psychiatry, Beck is deficient. She also attributes "I'm O.K., You're O.K." to Thomas Harris. The first to use the words was Eric Berne, in the Journal of Transactional Analysis . He is not in Bartlett's .

Lest all this sound ungrateful, let us praise Emily Beck for the years of dedication behind her revision of "Bartlett's." If less than perfect, it is surely one of the two or three most ambitious collections of quotations in English. The others are Burton Stevenson's Home Book of Quotations and The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations . And anyone who picks up "Bartlett's" and spends five minutes with it will find jewels.

Here are three:

"Do not leave my hand without light." Marc Chagall.

"The deepest feeling always shows in silence; not in silence, but restraint." Marianne Moore.

"It makes a difference whose ox is gored." Martin Luther.