EVERY ONCE in a while it is my pleasure to be in the company of people who love books and who quite inexplicably are delighted to have the opportunity to grill a real live book reviewer about the ins and outs of his professional life. Invariably one or more among them says, "What a joy it must be to be paid to read books," or words to that effect, and invariably I find myself nodding in agreement. It's true: Reading for pay is a privilege, and those few of us fortunate enough to enjoy it should thank the saints who so kindly smile upon us.

But however true that may be, it is no less the case that as each year's days dwindle down to a precious few and the festivity of Saint Nicholas draws ever closer, I am reminded of how much chaff the book reviewer must struggle through in order to reach that occasional bracing taste of wheat. This annual exercise of putting together a list of my "favorite" books may indeed produce such an accounting, and if any reader finds it useful, that is all to the good, but for me it also produces an unpleasant sense of de'j`a vu; re-reading a year's worth of my stale old reviews provides instructive proof that more books disappoint than please, which is to say that in books as in everything else excellence -- or anything approximating it -- is very much the exception to the mediocrity that rules.

So it is that each year as this Christmas issue draws nigh I am tempted to let crabbiness have its day, to present you not with the year's best books but its worst: To put in your stockings not bon bons and toys but switches and coals. In time no doubt temptation will have its day, and perhaps the result will be more amusing that what is about to follow. But duty calls and so, for that matter, does something more inviting: a list, however short, of a few good books.

It is of course obligatory to say that they are selected from those books I have actually reviewed or read, which necessarily means that the pool is limited; but for whatever it is worth I have not been tempted by the reviews of others to explore several books that have been much chatted up in the press, which may be my loss, though somehow I doubt it. In any event, few of the books of 1990 that I admire have received the attention they deserve, and fewer still -- if any -- are likely to win any of the year's literary prizes, but in the spirit of the season let us hold none of this against them.

Among American works of fiction, the honors go to four: Christopher Tilghman's In a Father's Place (Farrar Straus and Giroux), an exceptionally mature collection of short stories set principally on or near the Eastern Shore of Maryland; Paul Auster's The Music of Chance (Viking), further confirmation that this is one of our most interesting and original novelists; Harry Crews's hugely funny, irreverent and sad Body (Poseidon); and Louis B. Jones's Ordinary Money (Viking), an appealing first novel with real grit beneath its quiet humor. I also liked a couple of "commercial" novels, Playing the Dozens, by William D. Pease, and The Burden of Proof (Farrar Straus and Giroux), by Scott Turow, though in the case of the latter I may have succumbed to the reviewer's occupational disease and overpraised it.

Ditto for London Fields (Harmony Books/Crown), by Martin Amis, which I so badly wanted to be as good as his previous Money that I managed to persuade myself to that effect; I was wrong, and apologies are herewith issued to any readers who were misled. Another novel from Britain, Penelope Lively's Passing On (Grove Press), is far superior if much quieter, and is recommended with undiminished enthusiasm; so too is a novel from Canada, Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here (Knopf), the thoroughgoing crabbiness of which I not surprisingly found entirely agreeable.

Also from abroad: The Letter of Marque (Norton), by Patrick O'Brian, the latest adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey of the British Navy. It was my first exposure to these worthy heirs to the tradition of C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels, but I made the mistake of saying that it was also O'Brian's first American publication. A number of readers set me straight on that account, but searches in a number of reputable book stores have yet to yield a single copy of any other O'Brian novels, so readers are herewith warned that finding one of his books can be as rigorous a struggle as any of those through which Jack Aubrey so doughtily contends.

As for nonfiction, it was thin gruel in 1990. Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart (Atlantic Monthly Press) is a powerful if somewhat overwrought native view of South Africa's terrible internal conflicts. Skyscraper: The Making of a Building (Viking), by Karl Sabbagh, is a sidewalk superintendent's dream. Jazz Anecdotes (Oxford University Press), by Bill Crow, contains more laughs per page than any book of the year, though jazz laughs happen to be a particular weakness of mine. Finally, three useful and thoughtful books on the lamentable state of the academy: Tenured Radicals (Harper & Row), by Roger Kimball, The Death of Literature (Yale University Press), by Alvin Kernan, and College Sports, Inc. (Henry Holt), by Murray Sperber.

That's it: enough books to make a respectable stack under a Christmas tree, but not exactly Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf. Still, one thing is certain: they made this reviewer's year a lot more pleasant than it would have been without them.