February 21, 1994 12:00 PM

Jane Mills, editor

Mills, a British writer (sexual self-help books) and documentary filmmaker, set out to explore how literature has reflected erotica through the ages. The result is this absorbing anthology covering 24 centuries of sensual writing.

Mills begins her chronological collection with an anonymous poem, written in 4000 B.C., that was recited to the annual brides of Sumeria’s King Shu-Sin, which includes a highly comical description of trembling in the bedchamber. She then showcases the erotic literary contributions of the likes of Chaucer, lesbian poet Sappho, bawdy Franciscan monk Frangois Rabelais and deviant sybarite Marquis de Sade before turning to such contemporary authors as Henry Miller. Mills concludes with a sample of the phone sex (making use of a Water Pik showerhead in ways never suggested by the manufacturer) that caused all the clucking over Nicholson Baker’s 1992 best-selling novel Vox.

While documenting such subjects as chastity, voyeurism and unrequited love in literary history, Mills notes that Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, a huge commercial success in its day, was probably the first English language book ever merchandised as erotica.

Indeed, such literature was widely accepted through the Renaissance and until the Reformation, when the purveyors of Catholicism and Protestantism brought a persistent moral policing of literature. One elementary observation following a thorough reading of this ambitious collection is this: Sex, in fact, really has not changed much over the centuries. (HarperCollins, $30)

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