Between soft covers: a nuclear warning, Tom Wolfe, private eyes

Never read a book that is not a year old. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

When David Bradley's No Place to Hide (University of New England Press, $8.95 ) was first published in 1948, not enough people paid attention to what he said. After 35 years of arms-race-watching, after ''The Day After,'' we now know how right he was.

Dr. Bradley, a physician, was one of the scientific, military, and technical multitude assembled to study the aftereffects of atomic weapons tested at Bikini Atoll in July 1946, less than a year after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. ''No Place to Hide'' is the journal he kept.

This new edition contains an epilogue written last year, as well as an appendix on the dangers of radioactivity. Bradley's book is prophetic, humane, instructive, and distressingly timely; those who want to know how we arrived at our present state of concern about nuclear devices need to read this book.

''It is the most supremely interesting moment in life,'' wrote Alice James to her brother William a year before her death, ''the only one in fact, when living seems life, and I count it as the greatest good fortune to have these few months so full of interest and instruction in the knowledge of my approaching death.''

Morbid? At times. But for Alice James, a younger sister of novelist Henry and philosopher William, death was the main preoccupation of life, something Ruth Bernard Yeazell's very fine biographical essay makes clear in The Death and Letters of Alice James (University of California Press, $7.95).

Like her famous brothers, Alice James wrote well and suffered from numerous unclassifiable illnesses; ''neurasthenia, like intelligence, seems to have run in the family,'' Yeazell says. A fascinating book. Those who agree should look for Jean Strouse's ''Alice James, A Biography'' (Bantam, $4.95) and ''The Diary of Alice James'' (Penguin, $4.95).

Wolfgang Hildesheimer's Mozart (Vintage, $8.95) is a maddening and difficult biography; it also assumes a fair amount of interest and knowledge of the composer. Although Hildesheimer is from start to finish a fan of Mozart the musician, he seems to have a different agenda for Mozart the man.

What makes this biography particularly vexing is Hildesheimer's penchant for long digressions, over-the-river-and-through-the-woods passages in which he mounts a soapbox and explains his biases, subjects Mozart to some psychoanalytical scrutiny, and so on. If you like Mozart and intrusive biographers, this may be for you.

One of the best-written of recent autobiographies is Kate Simon's Bronx Primitive (Harper Colophon, $4.95), a book that is an exceptionally honest and affecting account of growing up female and an immigrant in 1920s New York City.

The book's subtitle is ''Portraits in a Childhood.'' Here is the opening of Chapter 3: ''When my brother was born, I was eighteen months old. My father, for whom I was still searching, had been in New York for six months. Our Warsaw apartment turned dark, the singing stopped. It need hardly be said that I was jealous, felt abandoned, unloved, coldly shadowed while the full warm light that was mine now circled him.''

Simon invests the stuff generic to childhood - school, play, sibling rivalry, parents - with new meaning, forces imagery from her early years into photographlike clarity. ''Bronx Primitive's'' only flaw is that there isn't enough of it.

America in the Twenties (Touchstone, $9.95) is the subject of Geoffrey Perrett's very readable and mildly revisionist history of the decade we like to think of as ''roaring.''

Perrett demonstrates that the 1920s do not conform to our stereotype and that the decade marked the beginning of 20th-century culture as we know it. This portrait of a decade resembles Doctorow's ''Ragtime'' writ large.

Tom Wolfe gave us ''The New Journalism'' in anthology form 10 years ago, and since then he has provided ''The Right Stuff,'' shown us ''The Painted Word,'' and led us on a tour ''From Bauhaus to our House.''

The Purple Decades: A Reader (Berkley, $7.95) contains selections from all of Wolfe's books. In the words of Joe David Bellamy, who wrote the book's introduction, ''future historians, curiosity seekers, and literate citizens will be able to turn to Tom Wolfe for the definitive, comprehensive, tuned-in portrait of our age.'' I'm not so sure, but it is fun reading.

Written in a clipped and quite witty manner, E. M. Delafield's The Provincial Lady in London (Academy Chicago, $7.95) is the second of four ''Provincial Lady'' books to be reprinted. Here, the ''Provincial Lady '' tries to deal with newfound literary success, and readers are presented with many satirical vignettes of 1930s London literary life.

Delafield is a chatty writer, and her humor is much like that of a good, light comic ''Masterpiece Theatre'' series. Academy Chicago is to be commended, too, for the exceptionally nice wraps and overall design of this volume.

Fine entertainment with a rougher edge comes from three reprinted suspense novels by Oliver Bleeck (a.k.a. Ross Thomas) which feature a newspaper columnist-turned-professional go-between, Philip St. Ives.

The Procane Chronicle, The Brass Go-Between, and Protocol for a Kidnapping (Perennial Library, $2.95 each) deal, respectively, with the retrieval of an egocentric master thief's journals, the recovery of a valuable work of art that has political import, and the ransoming of the American ambassador to an East European country. These books are well written, fast-paced, and completely entertaining.

Jacob Asch is a Caliornia private eye, and his creator, Arthur Lyons, is one of the most impressive heirs to the Hammett/Chandler/Ross McDonald tradition. Asch's first six cases - The Dead are Discreet, All God's Children, The Killing Floor, Dead Ringer, Castles Burning, and Hard Trade (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $ 3.95 each) - are now available in a uniform edition. The streets down which Asch travels are mean, and sometimes kinky, and the writing is first-rate.

The date usually assigned to the invention of photography is 1839. The person generally credited with that invention is Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, even though his one-time partner, Nicephore Niepce, made a photograph in 1826, and William Henry Fox Talbot made ''sun pictures'' the same year as Daguerre.

Those exciting early days of photography are the subejct of Beaumont Newhall's Latent Image (University of New Mexico Press, $6.95). This small book, out of print for 15 years, fleshes out accounts of the discovery of photography found in more general histories.

A regular column in the Book Review.

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