SERIOUS READERS are always on the lookout for a

book to enjoy in the bathtub--something amusing, short and utterly putdownable. This last is important, because an engrossing or suspenseful novel usually leads to several hours of soaking, resulting in that vaguely nauseated sense of being waterlogged.

The Second Book of Insults I found ideal for semi- submerged perusal. A collection of fast comebacks, delicious put-downs, and aphoristic retorts, it lends itself perfectly to that spirit of meditation that everyone experiences in a hot tub of water. One can reflect, for instance, on the savvy of Robert Kennedy: "Always forgive your enemies--but never forget their names." Or mull over the uncanny exactness of David Frye's description of Gerald Ford: "He looks like the guy in a science fiction movie who is the first to see the Creature."

Besides a roundup of the usual repartee, McPhee has included generous examples from the great wit Sydney Smith and selected invective from three Victorian curmudgeons, W.S. Landor, the Duke of Wellington, and William Cobbett. Cobbett, the Don Rickles of his day, possessed real flair for insult; he once described the poet Virgil as "a crawling and disgusting parasite, a base scoundrel, and pandar to unnatural passion."

My favorite quip, betraying my literary bias, is reported to have been made by a suave waiter to a discourteous, uneducated customer: "My position, sir, does not allow me to argue with you. But if it ever came to a choice of weapons, I should choose grammar."