Between soft covers

Never read a book that is not a year old. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson He was one of the great photographers of our century, the contemporary and near-equal of Alfred Stieglitz. He helped to found the magazine Camera Work, was perhaps the most successful of many fashion photographers in the 1920s and 1930s, was curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art (the best known of his many shows is ``The Family of Man''). Edward Steichen tells his own story in Steichen: A Life in Photography (Harmony Books, New York, $12.95), with 249 black-and-white illustrations for company.

If there was a better first novel published in 1984 than Douglas Unger's Leaving the Land (Ballantine, New York, $3.50), I'd certainly like to read it. Unger's subject is the Middle Western family farm, and he portrays it lovingly, beautifully, but never gets maudlin. This novel will be held up in the future as a piece of social history, and even now it seems partly current events, but it is primarily a terrific, emotionally honest story.

It's hard not to like whales, whether they are blue, humpback, gingko-toothed, right, gray, or any of the many species examined by Richard Ellis in his wonderful The Book of Whales (Vintage, New York, $16.95). There are 13 lovely color plates (of paintings by Ellis), a glossary of ``whale'' terms, many references, and a lengthy and information-rich biography of each whale species. This book, in paperback for the first time, will be read and reread with enthusiasm by anyone interested in our largest mammal.

Once again the baseball season is upon us. We are settled in our armchairs, ready and eager to argue close calls. To help such disputes look out for Baseball Rules in Pictures (Perigee/Putnam, New York, $5.95), assembled by G. Jacobs and J. R. McCrary. The Official Baseball Rules are reprinted here, and the more difficult rules are simply illustrated in black-and-white drawings.

Ever wanted to try your hand at a mystery novel but weren't sure you knew quite how to go about it? The solution to your problems may be Writing Mystery and Crime Fiction (The Writer Inc., Boston, $12.95), edited by Sylvia K. Burack. It contains 26 essays on such matters as plot, characters, beginnings, setting, and background by the likes of P. D. James, Bill Granger, Loren D. Estleman, Stanley Ellin, Richard Martin Stern, and Michael Underwood. There are also a ``layman's guide to law and the courts'' and a glossary of legal terms.

To my mind, the finest of all serial novels this century is Anthony Powell's ``A Dance to the Music of Time,'' and at long, long last the first volume of this 12-volume series, A Question of Upbringing (Popular Library, New York, $3.95), is available in mass-market paperback. The world he re-creates here is post-World War I Britain; the characters are simply unforgettable -- this is a social novel in the best sense. Popular Library will be reissuing the series in its entirety. Plan to read all of them; you won't be sorry.

When Casey Stengel was managing the Yankees, he once told a writer:

``I won't trade my left fielder.''

``Who's your left fielder?'' the writer asked.

``I don't know,'' Casey said, ``but if it isn't him, I'll keep him anyway.''

This zany logic was characteristic of Stengel, one of baseball's famous figures, legendary for his baseball acumen as well as his language. Robert Creamer's Stengel: His Life and Times (Dell, New York, $8.95) is that rare thing, a good baseball biography.

``Through the architect's medium, we have been invited to watch art intersect with life each time we open the door to a building, watch a building going up or coming down, or just walk past a building in the street,'' writes Herbert Muschamp in Man About Town (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., $7.95), a study of Frank Lloyd Wright, a man who understood better than virtually all others the relationship of man and building. But this book goes beyond Wright to consider urban architecture in general and in particular. Muschamp's opinions are both numerous and considered, and they animate the structures from which they originate.

A regular column in the monthly Book Review.

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