YOU MAY FIND THIS hard to believe, but I begin this column about the controversial book on cloning, "In His Image," by citing the case of the woman who went swimming off the Jersey Coast and wound up, for reasons that we won't go into here, giving birth to a guppy. I heard this story when I was having lunch one day with "the girls" back in the files of the insurance company where I used to work. Two of us were not girls. There was me and there was the fellow who told us the guppy story. It was true, he said. He had read it.

He did not say right off that he had read about this alleged seduction of a woman by a fish. He merely mentioned it in the course of a general discussion of sexual phenomena by me, him and the girls." I heard tales of virgin births in Brooklyn and then - then - the tale of the fish. This was too much for me and so I challenged the teller of the tale. His name was Jerry.

"It's ture," he said.

Around the tables, the girls looked up at me. There was Margie and Angie and Terry and Inga and some others and they were all waiting for me to respond to this challenge. I was the mailboy, but I did have some college.

"It's not possible," I said. "A human being can only mate with a human being."

"Oh yeah," Jerry said. "I read it in a book."

There were oohs and aahs all around the table, everyone nodding up and down. Jerry vanquished me right on the spot. When you read something, it was true and when you read something in a book, it was even more true. Those were the rules and they are really good rules, rules I cherish as a journalist. You only have to see television commercials - those pitchmen standing before books - or see those ads for leather-bound volumes that would add a touch of prestige to your otherwise banal den, to realize that to most of the people most of the time a book is something special. It is about knowledge. It is about truth.

Now the fact of the matter is that this is how I feel. I cannot throw out a book. I love to have them around and I enjoy the very feel of them. They are friends and they are, in my view, about truth and even though I have learned that book publishers don't have research departments to check facts and often publish books that are atrocious. I still see books as different - as classy,M or something. You write for a newspaper, you're a reporter. You write books, you're an author. My mother would prefer me to be an author.

Now to the cloning book. It purports to be the account of how a very rich man named Max contacted the author of the book, a science writer named David Rorvik, and asked him to arrange a cloning. Max wanted a son. He wanted, essentially, to be duplicated, which is what cloning more or less does. You take a cell from Max, implant it in a woman's ovum, and you have Max Jr. The author, full of doubts, questions and enough ethical misgivings to choke Albert Schweitzer, finally does what he is asked - which is arrange the cloning. The result, we are told, is the birth of Max Jr. to a virgin lady named Sparrow on an undisclosed island. Mother, baby and book are all doing fine.

Almost immediately, scientists all over said hogwash, if you can imagine a scientist saying hogwash. The preponderance of opinion was that while carrots have been cloned and frogs have been cloned and it is conceivable that human beings may someday be cloned, this particular cloning had not taken place. They asked ofr proof - a little something by way of documentation - and Rorvik had none. What he had was an insistence that he could tell no more than he did in the book. He was pledged to protect Max, Max Jr., and the winsome Sparrow. He could tell no more. Trust me, he said - and his publisher Lippincott did.

It published a statement in the front of the book saying, more or less, that the book might be true, but then again it might not. "We do not know," the statement said, and having professed agnosticism, Lippincott then proceeded to order a mammoth 60,000 first-printing and issue the book.

Now you could say that at the very least Lippinas nonfiction and at $8.95.

cott has been honest, not to mention prudent. It makes no claims for the book that it can not back up, something you can not say about other publishing houses, and it has in fact, warned the public that it might be buying a turkey. Moreover, it claims to have focused public attention on the issue of genetic engineering and for this is would like some credit. At the very least, it will settle for a best seller.

But all of this is too cute. It begs the question that in the public mind a book is published because it is worth publishing - because it is true. What Lippincott has done is squander the public faith in books, the notion that it would not be printed if it were false. A thing cannot be both true and untrue.Someone, somewhere, has to decide, to ask for some proof. You have to make a choice and by deciding to publish Lippincott has told the public what it's decision is. At least that's the way my old friend, Jerry would see it. If you asked him about cloning, he would say it happened to a guy named Max.

He read it in a book.