BERNARD SHAW: Collected Letters Vol. 3, 1911-1925. Edited by Dan H. Laurence. Viking. 989 pp. $45

IT ISN'T customary nowadays to think of Shaw as one of the giants of his age, though some of the plays are regularly revived. We see him as an ancient, loquacious joker, vain, opinionated and cranky. Yeats dreamt Shaw was a sewing machine, and Wilde, in an epigram the victim enjoyed, said "Shaw hasn't an enemy in the world, and none of his friends likes him." Yet although his letters are wonderfully free of self-doubt (he refers to himself as the greatest living biologist, economist, etc.), it is impossible not to see him as full of sense and often of wisdom. His offensiveness was a strategy for getting things done and his generosity was extraordinary. He would give expert instruction to anybody from a prime minister to a fledgling actor, from a young singer to Sir Edward Elgar, without apologetic hemming and hawing, and with keen attention to practical detail. He tells theater managers how to run their business and publishers how to draw up a contract. It was this cocksure common sense that often annoyed people.

The term "collected" doesn't in this case mean that Dan Laurence is trying to give us every surviving letter of Shaw; the correspondence is so voluminous that only "a fragmentary selection" is possible. Even so, this third volume of Laurence's edition is over 900 pages long. Shaw was 55 when he wrote the first letter in the present selection, 69 when he wrote the last; and although he quite often says he is feeling old and has shot his bolt, there is not the slightest sign here of any loss of energy or any reduction in the range of his interests. He still had 25 more years of letter writing before him, and Laurence's hands will clearly be full for a long time to come.

He deserves great gratitude for persisting in this huge task. It presents unusual difficulties -- for example, Shaw wrote many of his letters in shorthand, and inaccurate shorthand at that. Letters and copies are scattered all over the world, and the rule that the original must be used, or the best copy, imposes tremendous burdens. Laurence's headnotes are good, if a bit terse; there are allusions to contemporary politics and the First World War that could stand more explanation. Biographical details are omitted if the correspondent had appeared in the two earlier volumes -- quite understandable, but it means you really need to have Volumes I and II handy as you read. Still, this is heroic work.

IN ONE RESPECT, at least, Shaw was as silly as anybody. He had an affectionate marriage but a terrible weakness for actresses, with whom he flirted monstrously. In this volume we see him ensnared by Stella Patrick Campbell, as he hadn long before by Florence Farr and Ellen Terry. Even in his sixties he is taken by a very young American actress, Molly Tompkins. But he quotes with approval the saying of an earlier victim, Edith Nesbit: "You had no right to write the preface if you were not going to write the book." He rarely wrote the book, and of all the letters those to Stella are the most tedious. Later he tried to stop her publishing them, primarily for the sake of his wife; but there were other reasons just as good.

In other letters he adopts a style of genial insult that is sometimes astonishing. He argues that, like Tanner in Man and Superman, he is privileged to speak thus -- "to say things that would seem simply ill-mannered in anyone else." Some resented this treatment, others swallowed it. There is a letter to the composer Rutland Boughton which ends with a sketch showing the bass clef with 14 leger lines beneath it, and a note on the bottom one: "This nte represents my opinion of you as a composer." Yet years later he is still advising Boughton about orchestration.

He has a sort of cultivated heartlessness, as in his account of the cremation of his mother. He went backstage and watched with pleasure "the ribbons of garnet colored flame, smokeless and eager like pentecostal tongues," and noted that "funerals always sharpen one's sense of humor." He particularly enjoyed the sight of the assistant sorting out the metal remains of the coffin from the ashes. An actor has to choose between amputation of a leg and staying crippled: "If you lose it," writes Shaw, "an artificial leg of the best sort will carry you to victory as Henry V. If you don't and are lame, it means a lifetime of Richard III, unless I write a play entitled Byron." But he adds, "If we did not die of laughter at the humors of war we should of horror."

Shaw's own war record was admirable. He wrote incessantly to limit national hysteria and lust for revenge, and was for a while much hated and called pro-German, though he certainly wanted an allied victory. Again he is honest. He saw a zeppelin destroyed: "One is so pleased at having seen the show that the destruction of a dozen people or so in hideous terror and torment does not count." Shaw came well out of the war, even if he didn't, as he claimed, deserve a high decoration for valor.

The advice he gives is always good; the letters on acting remain valid to this day, especially on the importance of silence. He also knew best about his own plays and resisted all attempts to tamper with them. He was a poet, and his unconsciously formed shapes were consciously crafted. During these years he wrote Heartbreak House, the strangest of his plays, and St. Joan, the most conscientiously researched. He also wrote Back to Methuselah, which had no chance of box-office success. He liked money, but that didn't prevent his devoting enormous labor to a play that would make none.

Another quality comes through -- a charitable instinct. It might take the form of tireless attempts to get an income for the impossible T.E. Lawrence; but it might be a letter to some stranger who had sought his advice. The hapless Thomas Demetrius O'Bolger, his would-be biographer, whom Shaw addressed as "the most complete duffer" and "a Godforsaken lunatic," was the recipient of priceless autobiographical letters. Shaw enjoyed writing them as he enjoyed almost everything, including new cars. He was funny; a letter to Gilbert Murray attacking the stagecraft of Oedipus Rex is a hilarious performance. When, in 1950, he had the fall that resulted in his death, he said, "If I survive this I shall be immortal." He was wrong, possibly for the first time; he didn't need physical survival to achieve immortality.