This is a vacation?

For all his talk of quiet beach strolls and curling up with books, President Clinton's annual two-week summer getaway is off to a dizzying start. Nearly four days into the vacation here on Martha's Vineyard, he has stayed out past 11 each night, played saxophone with a jazz band, briefly debated a bicycle courier and attended at least four fund-raisers and several parties.

That doesn't count his two rounds of golf and the dozen hefty books he brought along.

"I'll try not to work you too hard, but we've got a lot of stuff to do," the president warned reporters on Air Force One late Thursday as he arrived here with his wife and daughter Chelsea. No kidding. They set the tone by heading straight to a dinner at the summer home of friend and super-lawyer Vernon Jordan that lasted almost until midnight. They've barely slackened the pace since.

Presidential vacations may say more about a chief executive's personality and inclinations than will a host of policy speeches. Ronald Reagan rode horses, cut brush and made little fuss about summer reading lists. George Bush piloted loud powerboats. Richard Nixon walked on the beach in black wingtips.

Bill Clinton, renowned for his appetite for food, conversation, ideas and--well, let's leave it at that--apparently thinks vacations shouldn't be wasted on frivolities such as sleep but instead should be seized as opportunities to cram in as much socializing, golfing and reading as possible. The first couple seems especially at ease in crowds now that the president's sex scandal and impeachment are months behind him and Hillary Rodham Clinton has launched her exploratory bid for a Senate seat from New York.

The Clintons "sat and talked and had fun," Jill Iscol said today, describing the Sunday night party she hosted for them and 80 of her friends at her home in Chilmark. "They were really relaxed and open." The Clintons stayed more than three hours, chatting and listening to a local country band, the Okie Dokes, and nibbling tuna burgers--a "very Vineyard" dish, their hostess said.

Iscol and her husband, Ken, a New York-based cellular phone entrepreneur, met the Clintons a few years ago on Martha's Vineyard through their children. Chelsea is friends with Zach Iscol, 21, and his sister Kiva, 19, both students at Cornell University. Those at Sunday night's party were island locals, Iscol said, few of whom had met the Clintons before. "Nobody was jaded," she said. "This wasn't glitterati."

That's not to say the Clintons are averse to rubbing elbows with famous folks here. Earlier Sunday, they attended a $1,000-per-person fund-raising brunch for the first lady hosted by Frank Biondi, former head of Viacom films. Guests included Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and humorist Art Buchwald. Then they headed to an afternoon party at the swanky new restaurant Balance, in Oak Bluffs, owned by film mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Livingston Taylor and his sister Kate performed several songs--including some penned by their famous brother, James. But by then the Clintons had moved outside, shaking hands with tourists and residents standing behind police barricades.

The president engaged in a short debate with Mark O'Connor, a young bicycle messenger from Boston who complained about a local law that fines cyclists $100 for failing to wear a helmet. A somber Clinton replied that he recently had attended the Washington funeral of Democratic fund-raiser Dan Dutko, who died in a biking accident "because he wasn't wearing a helmet." O'Connor said he's a careful cyclist, but the president was unmoved. "You may ride slow," he said, "but the streets are fast."

The Clintons spent nearly four hours at their secluded estate before heading to the Iscols' party. Maybe that's when the president began whittling down his stack of books.

"I'm not sure whether they'll all get done, but he's always looking for more," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said today. "He's not a speed reader, but he reads very quickly, so he'll get through most of these this weekend."

Near the top of the president's list is "Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk," Peter L. Bernstein's history of efforts to understand risk and probability. Clinton has told associates he's fascinated by the concept of predicting and managing risk, which he said is vital in setting foreign policy and dealing with long-term domestic issues like Medicare. The president also has talked about reading "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," the moving memoir of a French editor paralyzed by a brain disorder. Clinton has 10 other books with him, Lockhart said, but evidently even that's not enough. "He admired the book I was reading on the plane on the way up, and asked for it," Lockhart said, referring to a mystery. "I told him he could have it when I was done."

Inside the Book Bag

Books President Clinton has taken with him on vacation include:

* "A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century," by Witold Rybczynski.

* "Cold Hit," a thriller by Linda A. Fairstein.

* "Crossing to Safety," a novel by Wallace Stegner.

* "Dark Lady," a suspense novel by Richard North Patterson.

* "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," by Jared Diamond.

* "Just Revenge," a novel by Alan Dershowitz.

* "The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy," by Michael Knox Beran.

* "Memoirs of Hadrian," a history by Marguerite Yourcenar.

* "Prayers for Rain," a mystery by Dennis Lehane.

* "Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right," a study of conservative talk shows by Robert Hilliard and Michael Keith.