"It is idle but fun to ponder the rapport between artists' lives and their work," Ned Rorem wrote in a 1998 review of Prokofiev's letters. "Idle, because nothing can be proved about the resulting value of the

work . . . ; fun, because everything counts in an artist and all angles intermesh." If idle yet illuminating fun suggests summer, then Rorem's own Wings of Friendship: Selected Letters, 1944-2003 (Shoemaker Hoard, $28) is the perfect book for fans of the distinguished composer to tote to the beach this season. These letters to 49 people who mattered to him over the years (Rorem is now 81) shed delicious, gossipy, civilized light on the intermeshing angles already familiar to readers of his diaries of Paris, New York and Nantucket.

It's a one-sided light, as he admits ("How I would love to have you know how the other half reacted"), but a sweeping one. The recipients constitute a fascinatingly quirky cross-section of postwar American culture: Besides Paul Bowles (whose correspondence with Rorem was published separately in 1997), Virgil Thomson is here and Leonard Bernstein, Edmund White and Gloria Vanderbilt, Edward Albee and Judy Collins, Gore Vidal and Leontyne Price. As that list suggests, music and literature are the main preoccupations, and Rorem is as free with sharp asides as he is with compliments. " 'Is it true?' asks Miss [Elizabeth] Hardwick, 'that a bad artist suffers as much as a good one?' More, wouldn't you think?" he snips to Bowles. But the pleasure of friendship is a constant, too ("I miss you," he tells practically everyone), and so is the pain of love: An unsent 1959 letter to Claude Lebon, "a musical dentist . . . who broke my heart") runs 18 pages. By the end, with his companion Jim Holmes dead of AIDS, the tone is uniformly darker: "insomnia and sadness mainly."

-- Elizabeth Ward

Ned Rorem