Between soft covers

Never read a book that is not a year old. - Ralph Waldo Emerson The year was 1912, and Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen were racing to the South Pole. Amundsen won - by 34 days - and Scott never returned from what Roland Huntford calls ''the classic journey of terrestrial discovery.'' Scott and Amundsen (New York: Atheneum, $12.95) tells this story of Antarctic travel in great and fascinating detail; there are maps, photographs, and numerous diary entries.

When it was published last year, Donald Spoto's The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Ballantine, $4.95) provoked a lot of controversy, no small amount of that from those who worked with the great director. Whatever, Hitchcock was obviously a complex man, and this biography, thick with letters, interviews, and other revealing material, is endlessly fascinating.

''The struggle of life is not won with one glorious moment like Reggie Jackson's five straight home runs in a recent World Series,'' Roger Wilkins tells us in his fine and frank autobiography, A Man's Life (New York: Touchstone , $7.95) ''but a continual struggle in which you keep your dignity intact and your powers at work, over the long course of a lifetime.'' Wilkins, the book makes clear, has followed the latter path.

The Midwestern landscape has changed considerably since the 1850s, and that transformation is shown in the many black-and-white photographs in Rhondal McKinney's An Open Land: Photographs of the Midwest, 1852-1982 (Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, $19.50).

Photographers include Arthur Rothstein, David Plowden, Frank Gohlke, and Wright Morris, and there is a fine essay, ''The Prairie Spirit,'' by Stephen F. Christy.

Books about management are not generally page-turners, but In Search of Excellence, by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman (New York: Warner, $8.95) is an exception. The authors examined nearly 50 companies to see what makes a successful company successful, and the results are interesting, instructive, and well presented. A sound piece of work, it was on the best-seller list for over a year.

John Augustus Sutter left his wife and four children in Switzerland in 1834 to join thousands of other ''shipwrecked souls from the Old World'' in America. He made his way, finally, to California, and it was on his land, at his mill, that gold was discovered in 1849. Blaise Cendrars's Gold (New York: Michael Kesend Publishing, $8.95) is a short novel about Sutter first published in 1925, and now in a new translation by Nina Rootes. An odd fiction, but it grows on you.

Smarts: The Cultural I.Q. Test (New York: McGraw-Hill, $5.95) is designed, says its author Ethan Mordden, ''to separate those who are truly cultured from those who have merely heard the names and titles.'' The questions - in the areas of literature, film, theater, music, events, and ideas - are fun but difficult indeed.

The big eight to which Mark Stevens refers in The Big Eight (New York: Collier Books, $6.95) are: Price Waterhouse; Arthur Young; Deloitte, Haskins & Sells; Peat, Marwick, Mitchell; Arthur Andersen; Coopers & Lybrand; Ernst & Whinney; and Touche Ross, accounting firms all. And what is it like in these largest firms? Stevens has the answers.

Gerald Durrell is a gifted naturalist and a talented writer, so any reprinting of his work is cause for celebration by those who like animals. The Stationary Ark is about the establishing of a zoo on what is now the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, and Golden Bats And Pink Pigeons (Touchstone $6.95 each) is set on Mauritius, the island where the now-extinct Dodo bird once lived.

While there may be some quibbling with William Dudley Hunt Jr.'s choices in American Architecture: A Field Guide to the Most Important Examples, (New York: Harper & Row, $9.95) the book is still quite thorough and the best portable reference of its kind.

The 58 humorous short essays in Roy Blount's One Fell Soup (New York: Penguin , $4.95) were written for 20 different publications. They are uneven, but when he's on, Blount is very, very funny. My favorites are ''Why There Will Never Be a Great Bowling Novel'' and ''The Singing Impaired.''

David James Duncan's The River Why (New York: Bantam, $5.95) was the first novel ever published by the Sierra Club, and this is explained in part by the book's strong ecological slant. But ''The River Why'' is also part counter-culture funky, part hip Bildungsroman, and similar in spirit - as more than a few critics have noticed - to ''Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.''

Bruce Chatwin, author of the delightful travel book ''In Patagonia,'' has an eye and a predilection for the arcane, not to mention great talent as a writer. On the Black Hill (Penguin, $5.95) is his third book, the story of twins who live and farm together in Wales, and who, though firmly grounded in place, seem out of time. At times, Chatwin's writing is brilliant.

If you are soon to let computers enter your life but are a little short on knowledge about them, perhaps ''7 Simple Steps to Buying a Personal Computer, a Word Processor, a Computer for Your Business'' or ''A Computer for Your Child'' (Warner, $3.50 each) will help. These books are short and readable.

Hawaii Pono (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $7.95) first appeared in 1960, about the time Hawaii became our 50th state. Then it stirred up some controversy; now, Lawrence D. Fuchs's social history of the islands seems informative and accurate.

Known as Lady, and certainly one of the great American singers, Billie Holiday tells her own story (with William Duffy) in Lady Sings the Blues (Penguin, $5.95). This is not a happy or easy book, but it is honest and as real as her voice.

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