IN THE ATTIC, stowed away in a couple of decaying boxes, are reminders of Christmases past: the assorted bits and pieces, several dozen of them, of my American Flyer S-gauge model-train layout. If dim memory serves me accurately, the first of these was under the tree on Christmas, 1948, when I was 9 years old; the last, perhaps five years later. The switches and the water tower no longer function and the little man no longer pops out of the station when the train passes, but the train itself can work up a fair head of steam -- yes, I am a child of the Age of Steam -- if I scrub the tracks and wheels with steel wool and set the needle of the transformer at exactly the right spot.

Also in the attic is another relic: the suitcase that I found awaiting me, under another tree but in the same room, on Christmas morning, 1954. It is a two-suiter, of brown leather; with a length or two of strategically placed rope it can still take me where I need to go, as it so honorably and faithfully did from high school on. Yet I have never been able to love that suitcase, as I do those who gave it to me, because its presence that day announced the end of my boyhood; thenceforth there would be no more trains and toys under my tree.

But it is elsewhere in the house that I find the most durable and treasured vestiges of my Christmases past: on the bookshelves. It was my good fortune to be the child of parents who loved books and gave them to me for Christmas from the time I was old enough to turn their pages until I was several years past my final eligibility as a tax exemption. Only a few of those books are actually still in my possession, the others having been read to tatters, or traded to schoolmates, or left behind at the end of one period of my life or another; but the small number that are still on my shelves give me a precious link to my past.

When I was very young my parents gave me Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne, promoting me in later years to Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. Yet though a generation later I would attempt to pass along these same writers, and thus these same tastes, to my own sons, these are not the books I most vividly remember -- perhaps because they were, and are, entirely conventional reading for any middle-class child of Anglo-American parents. Rather, I most clearly recall the books of less daunting reputation but more intimate connection to my own young mind. Surely, for example, I can trace the understated but persistent ambition that haunts me even now to a series, each year's new additions to which I regularly received at Christmas, that celebrated the youthful achievements of noted Americans. They were bound in an especially violent shade of orange, and they bore inspirational titles in the manner of Horatio Alger: George Washington, Boy Leader; Tom Edison, Boy Inventor; Clara Barton, Girl Nurse; Lou Gehrig, Boy Hero.

Ah, heroes! In the late 1940s my aunt and godmother, Marianne Gregory, was an employe of the publishing firm of A.S. Barnes and Company, which for a time issued brief, hagiographical "biographies" of each baseball season's winners of the Most Valuable Player Awards. It is quite beyond my powers of description to recreate the shudders of ecstasy that caromed through me when -- at Christmas, 1949 -- I was presented with signed copies of both of that year's books. One was inscribed, "Best wishes to Johnny Yardley from Ted Williams"; the other was signed not merely by the biographee, the immortal Jackie Robinson, but also by several of his Brooklyn Dodger teammates, among them Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges. There is, I am obliged to mention, a footnote to this story that provides an instructive reminder of the imperfection of our species: a quarter-century later my mother confessed that she had donated the signed books to the public library and -- sic transit gloria mundi -- thrown away my baseball cards!

By the time I was 13 years old my parents had stopped giving me "boys' books" -- not because I had exhibited any particular precocity in matters literary but because I wanted to read what they were reading. The bridge they cleverly provided for my transition between juvenile and adult reading was the remarkable series of books by C.S. Forester about the exploits of Horatio Hornblower. My shelves tell me that in 1952 my parents gave me Lieutenant Hornblower, the next year Hornblower and the Atropos; how the many other Hornblowers came my way, I cannot recall. Not merely were the Hornblower novels my tickets to faraway places, dramatic adventures and an understanding (long since relinquished) of the distinctions among a barnacle, a binnacle and a fo'c's'le; they also taught me much about human pride, vulnerability and fallibility, which helps explain why the books are still on my shelves.

In the Christmases that followed my horizons broadened, though slowly and uncertainly. By now I no longer found paperback books in my Christmas stocking, because I was too old to have a stocking -- though young enough to resent its disappearance. So my parents came up with something better. Now, when I opened the door of my bedroom on Christmas morning, I found immediately outside a small package containing the inexpensive books of the day: Modern Library hardcovers and Anchor paperbacks. One year the package enclosed Anchor editions of Conrad's Chance and The Secret Agent; another, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, in Modern Library editions; still another, Dos Passos' Three Soldiers and Huxley's Point Counter Point, also in the Modern Library.

But I locate my final passage from juvenile to adult reader at Christmas, 1955. It was then that I received -- in a package under the very tree itself, not a mere ersatz stocking -- a copy of Poems: 1923-1954, by e.e. cummings. This I had aggressively requested, having been introduced to cummings in a high-school English course; but I was not at all confident that my request would be granted, because by the standards of 1955 cummings could be decidedly racy. That my parents evidently deemed me sufficiently mature for such material was as welcome a step along the road to adulthood as the previous Christmas' suitcase had been unwelcome. The book -- its spine cracked, its cover ink-smeared, its pages pencil-scratched -- today occupies an honored, important space on my shelves; I rarely read cummings any more, but in no way does that diminish his importance in my life.

I was 16 years old in 1955; I had, though I scarcely could have known it at the time, only 10 more years in which to receive books as gifts. Ten years, that is, because by the time I was 26 years old I had a job on the Greensboro Daily News, a grand old paper in North Carolina that permitted me to assume, in addition to my other obligations, the duties of book-review editor. Suddenly Christmas once a year was a thing of the past; now, as the boxes of free books rolled in with each mailcall, it was Christmas every day. Why should anyone give me books now? Wouldn't that be coals to Newcastle?

Of course it would; so the train of Christmas gifts screeched to a halt. It made sense. And yet . . . and yet. Though my pleasure at cracking open each day's packages from the publishers has not diminished over the years, it remains that a book one receives as a result of the rather cynical relationship between publisher and reviewer is not exactly the same as one given, out of love and the hope of shared pleasure, by a relative or friend. There are ulterior motives involved even when my closest friends in publishing send me books, just as there are ulterior motives on my part in receiving them. The spirit of Christmas, if indeed there is such a thing, is nowhere to be found in these transactions wherein United Parcel Service, not Saint Nicholas, is the courier of choice.

Which is why Christmas is perhaps the one day of the year on which I can be pretty well guaranteed to assert, for a change, that mine is indeed not the best of all possible jobs: not merely because I cannot expect to receive books, but because I cannot give them. A book from a book reviewer is, in the eyes of the recipient, the equivalent of a bottle of whiskey from a distiller or a necktie from a haberdasher: the thought is not enough. This will seem a trivial deprivation only to those who get no pleasure from choosing and presenting gifts, who do not believe that a book more than all other gifts is an expression of one's one tastes, interests, personality and character -- and, as a result, an especially intimate exchange between the person who gives it and the person who receives it.

There are, of course, other ways to make such exchanges; whether on this Christmas I give those whom I love clothing or food or recordings or surprises as yet undisclosed even to me, they will know that more than the mere presentation of objects is involved. But a book -- a good, deep, serious, enriching, pleasurable book -- is a world, and in giving a book one gives a world. So I envy all of you as you write up your lists, and match books and their recipients, and plan expeditions to bookstores --just as I envy you who on Christmas morning will awake to find those books under your trees. A Christmas with books: that is a holiday.