SHIPS OF THE PANAMA CANAL. By James L. Shaw. Naval Institute Press 269 pp. $29.95.

IT WAS LONGFELLOW who hymned these lines:

I remember the

black wharves

and the slips,

And the sea-tides

tossing free;

And Spanish sailors with bearded lips,

And the beauty and mystery of the ships,

And the magic of the sea.

Like those lines, this book carries a whiff of salt air on a sea breeze. It is a picture album of some of the vessels that plied the Panama Canal from 1914, when the canal opened, to 1939, when normal traffic was suspended by the outbreak of war. Nowadays, benumbed by fast technological change, we forget what an engineering miracle the Panama Canal represented to our parents and grandparents. When a ship transitted the canal in the heyday of the age of steam, its passengers wanted a photographic record of the event. So here are great liners -- Empress of Australia, Laconia, Empress of Britain, Bremen; yachts -- J.P. Morgan's Corsair -- and warships -- H.M.S. Renown (with the Prince of Wales and Lord Louis Mountbatten aboard) and U.S.S. Houston (carrying President Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

The photographs were all taken by Ernest "Red" Hallen, who had arrived in Panama in 1906 to photograph the canal's construction. He stayed on until 1937, making thousands of glassplate negatives, many of which are now in the National Archives. The best of them have been selected for this work by the author, who has done an excellent job of annotation, giving the history of each ship and pointing out significant details in the photographs, as for instance in the December 27, 1932, shot of U.S.S. Constitution crossing the isthmus to the Pacific side, on her way to tour West Coast ports. To mark the holiday there are Christmas trees lashed atop her three masts and her bowsprit -- a very festive touch, perhaps one familiar to Longfellow in his youth, and one a Boeing 747 couldn't possibly emulate. ICELAND. Text by Pamela Sanders. Photographs by Roloff Beny. Salem House. 208 pp. $40.

ALL RIGHT, CLASS, what is the only country in the world to have an elected woman head of state? (Leaving aside the question of Corazon Aquino.) Where is the biggest waterfall and the largest glacier in Europe? Where is putrefied shark meat considered a delicacy?

You will have guessed the answer, but no catalogue of odd facts can exhaust the surprises contained in this splendid tour of a country of only 250,000 inhabitants and rugged natural beauty. The author, a novelist and former journalist and (very unobtrusively) the wife of the American ambassador, takes one by the hand, so to speak, to see the sights.

And what sights they are! For starters, there is the horizontal rain. And then there is the Reykjavik phone book organized by first names. There are the ancient farmhouses built right into the earth, guarded by brooding churches within which the conversion of pagan Vikings to Christianity seems almost a living memory.

But let Pamela Sanders tell it:

"It was spring in Iceland and everything was fresh and quickening and vibrant with new life. The homefields were of a purity of bright green that was scarcely believable, everywhere splashed with buttercups and dotted with lambs, some so newly-born they could barely stand, their stubby tails twitching eagerly as they nursed. All over the fields were flocks of black-and-white oyster catchers, their orange beaks bright against the grass, their high pitched twee-twee filling the air. Overhead wheeled thousands of seabirds -- gulls and kittiwakes and fulmars -- nesting in the crevices of Steinafjall's craggy cliffs rising above us. Between the mountains were lush valleys with myriad waterfalls and streams, white farmhouses and herds of dairy cows and their calves. Deep in the valleys, one saw tongues of snow and ice reaching down from the great glaciers that towered over us and made the scenery seem like Switzerland or Austria. The horses, however, were unmistakably Icelandic. And they were everywhere -- mares grazing quietly in the rain with their foals, others taking shelter under the eaves of farm buildings or overhanging rocks. Whole herds galloped along the road, thick manes tossing and tails flying."

Wow! Hand me my copy of Nj,all's Saga, and call the travel agent.

A very polite thing about this handsome book is that the late Roloff Beny's beautiful photographs appear precisely when Sanders' text takes up their subject. The photograph of Snaefellsjokull, the volcano that Jules Verne used prominently in Journey to the Center of the Earth is particularly handsome -- the mountain rises spectacularly out of the coast, dwarfing a lighthouse, and looking much like a sleeping monster, as indeed do many of Iceland's geological formations. THE LAST LITTLE CITADEL. America's High Schools Since 1940. By Robert L. Hampel. Houghton Mifflin. 203 pp. $15.95.

THIS IS THE third report from the Study of American High Schools project cosponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Independent Schools. Earlier reports were Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (1984), by Theodore R. Sizer and The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace (1985), by Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar and David K. Cohen.

Robert L. Hampel is an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware. His title comes from the idealistic credo of George Stoddard, state commissioner of education in New York in the early 1940s. A resolute foe of progressive education, Stoddard wanted the high school to stand apart from modern life and the snares of the consumer society:

"If we give up in this last little citadel, in the high school, which is the last education for most of our boys and girls today, and merely try to do what mother and father and everybody else is trying to do, in terms of health and social relations, and getting along with people and visiting, and being nice, and the rest of it, and forget this glory of the human mind . . . I think we are cheapening education. I think we are giving ground."

Almost half a century later, in our age of equity and equality, of comprehensive curriculum, of compensatory and remedial education, of cultural pluralism, of so many education buzzwords, we might think that Stoddard lost his fight for high academic standards. Or did he? This historical study, after tracing the educational tumults of the 1960s and '70s, ends with new agitation for educational reforms leading toward academic excellence. The author, generally a nonjudgmental fellow, suggests that any new changes in the schools will "continue to be slow and uneven."

The merits of this study are its common sense ("Most students cared primarily about friendships, sports, sex, television and music") and its economy. In a mere 157 pages, the author neatly summarizes the tremendous currents of change that have swept over American high schools since the end of World War II. It is a subject on which few persons can be neutral because almost everyone has been to a high school. (My own looked like a cross between a Rhine castle and the Iowa State Penitentiary -- a citadel indeed.) I confess that I started this book thinking I would be appalled by the mush of the reformers of the '70s who stressed human development at the expense of academics. When I reflect on the mindless discipline and the not especially friendly environment of my high school (in the 1950s), I think I may have missed out on something very nice.

But secondary education is a large subject. This volume, and its predecessors, are a good place to begin its study. HOW TO BECOME RIDICULOUSLY WELL READ IN ONE EVENING. A Collection of Literary Encapsulations. Edited by E.O. Parrott. Viking. 188 pp. $12.95.

TWENTY YEARS ago at literary cocktail parties people always talked about books I hadn't read. This still happens today. But long ago I developed a tactic which stopped dead any sneering at my literary tastes. When asked what I am reading, I confidently reply, "Giant, by Edna Ferber" This flabbergasts everyone.

Fortunately along came this handy guide to bookish oneupmanship. It contains 150 precis of the classics, from Chaucer and Milton to Harold Pinter and Philip Roth. Many are too obscene to repeat here -- just why is it that a cultivated mind and obscenity so often go together? Anyway, an evening's read will equip anyone for the contests of sophistication. By way of an introduction, here is part of the encapsulation of Shakespeare's Othello, as if it were told in tabloid-newspaper headlines:




Reid Beddow is an assistant editor of Book World