NONFICTION

Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing , by Gene Lees (Prima, P.O. Box 1260 GL, Rocklin, Calif. 95677; $19.95). Born in Canada in 1925, Oscar Peterson is one of jazz's premier pianists. The son of West Indian immigrant parents, he made his Carnegie Hall debut at 24. He has played with and accompanied musicians of the caliber of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Lester Young. This biography begins with Peterson's childhood in Montreal, continues through his apprenticeship in Canada, his growing fame among musicians in the know and his ascension to the pantheon of jazz greats.

Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture , by Katrina Hazzard-Gordon (Temple University Press, $24.95). This book is not nearly as academic as the off-putting subtitle would make it seem. Instead, it is a comprehensive and readable exploration of the "dance arena" -- which Hazzard-Gordon defines as "any institution of social interaction in African-American life in which secular social dancing plays an integral part." Hazzard-Gordon seeks to explore how dance developed among black Americans and its significance in black life. Thus there are accounts of the role of dance during slavery, dance in "jook houses, honky-tonks {and} after-hours joints," and dance in urban settings -- ballrooms, nightclubs and cabarets.

The Oxford Book of Marriage , edited by Helge Rubinstein (Oxford, $19.95). Once the wife of the archbishop of Canterbury, Lady Fisher by name, was asked by some young girls, "Mrs. Fisher, have you ever thought of divorce?" She replied, "Of divorce, never; of murder, frequently." Say what you will about marriage -- and this winning compendium covers everything from courtship to old age and death -- it is a highly interesting experience. Rubinstein's extracts mix lengthy passages from novels with one or two-line aphorisms; authors range from Catullus and John Donne (the stunningly frank, "Elegy XIX," that opens with "Off with that girdle" and includes the famous line "Oh, my America, my Newfoundland") to Dylan Thomas and Fay Weldon.

Still Life , by Samuel F. Pickering, Jr. (University Press of New England, $19.95). Not many professors and literary folk make the writing of familiar essays their chief occupation, but those who do tend to be very good at it indeed: Noel Perrin, Wendell Berry, Joseph Epstein, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate. As a teacher, Pickering is known as an expert on early children's literature, though he has gained considerable extracurricular fame as the true-life model for the teacher played by Robin Williams in the film "Dead Poet's Society." As an essayist, he writes about, well, almost anything from politics to writing during the winter to bogs, addressing them all with an autobiographical immediateness that is hard to resist. A sample sentence: "I may be drawn to small things simply because I don't have room in my life or house for anything large."

First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence , edited by Ben Bova and Byron Preiss (Bryon Preiss/NAL, $19.95). Packager Preiss specializes in producing handsome illustrated albums that mix scientific fact and fiction in about equal measure; earlier volumes given this lavish treatment include The Planets, The Universe and The Microverse. This latest production surveys current speculation about intelligent non-human life and includes an essay on the dolphin as a model for an alien intelligence; a reprint of the classic Stanley Weinbaum story of first contact, "A Martian Odyssey"; accounts of the various technologies now in place to detect evidence of other-worldly beings (radio telescopes are only the most obvious tool); and what it would mean for us to discover other rational life forms in the universe. Contributors include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Gregory Benford and many others in the science and science fiction community.

A Literary Companion to Science , edited by Walter Gratzer (Norton, $24.95). Though it's been estimated that 90 per cent of the scientists who've ever lived are alive and working, writes Walter Gratzer, today's nonscientists all too often regard their work with disdain or unease -- unlike intellectuals of earlier times who took all knowledge as their province. In this anthology designed to help bridge what C.P. Snow called "the two cultures," Gratzer examines "the incursions of science into literature," linking excerpts from fiction, poetry and biography to illuminate aspects of the scientific enterprise. He brings together H.G. Wells, John Updike and Sinclair Lewis on "the laboratory scene"; G.B. Shaw's dramatized version of Isaac Newton and Aldous Huxley's fictional portrait of J.B.S. Haldane; Johannes Kepler, J.D. Watson and Primo Levi on the thrill of discovery. Not everyone is awed. Here's Sydney Smith's summation of an Edinburgh Review colleague's overcritical attitude: "Damn the Solar System - Bad Light; planets too distant - pestered with comets - feeble contrivance; could do better myself."

Indiscreet Journeys: Stories of Women on the Road , edited by Lisa St Aubin de Te'ran (Faber and Faber, $19.95). "Box-Car Bertha" rode the rails during the Depression; Harriette Wilson was an 18th-century "woman of the streets." These and a few other of the "heroines" in this anthology have economic motives for hitting the road. Others -- aviatrix Beryl Markham, 19th-century explorers Isabelle Eberhardt and Isabella Bird -- are inspired by the spirit of adventure. Still others -- the fictional creations of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Edna O'Brien, for example -- are escaping domestic claustrophobia. Some of these travellers cross continents; others go around the block. But in almost all 28 stories, it is the journey not the arrival that counts.