William Zinsser. Godine, $29.95 (272p) ISBN 1-56792-147-7

Zinsser's enthusiasm for his subject emanates from the pages of this study of "the golden age of American popular song," framed by "the musical Show Boat in 1927... until the rise of rock in the mid-1960s." "My book doesn't claim to be definitive," writes Zinsser, theater and movie critic for The New York Herald Tribune during the '50s, professional piano player and author of 16 books, including On Writing Well and Mitchell & Ruff; "it's just one man's tour of his collection, as idiosyncratic as another man's collection of stamps or coins or butterflies." Zinsser uses the biographies of major songwriting talents as centerpieces for his in-depth portrayal of the days when "every home seemed to have a piano and at least one member of the family who could play it." He includes chapters on sheet music, songs from WWII and the direct impact that vocalists, Hollywood stars (Fred Astaire) and movies (The Wizard of Oz) had on popular composers. Moving from the "agreeable world" of Hoagy Carmichael to "hit machines" like Harry Warren, to the ambitious works of Gershwin, Zinsser demonstrates their centrality in the sphere of American music. He discusses not only harmony, intervals and syncopation, but he also includes the humble stories of talents who strove for, stumbled upon or seized prominence. Despite Zinsser's personal enthusiasm, the work never veers into sentimentality. "My book is a celebration, not a funeral, and one of the miracles I'm celebrating is how powerfully the songs have become lodged in the nation's collective memory," Zinsser explains. His effort is worthy of his ambition. B & w photographs and illustrations. (Jan.)