Between soft covers

''Never read a book that is not a year old.'' - Ralph Waldo Emerson There are hundreds of small presses across North America, and what Bill Henderson thinks is the cream of their output appears in The Pushcart Prize VIII: The Best of the Small Presses (New York: Avon, $9.95), introduced by Gail Godwin. There is poetry, fiction, essay, and criticism from such authors as Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Joyce Carol Oates, Jorie Graham, William Gass, Cynthia Ozick, and Clark Blaise.

''Children are a group of people who do not know certain things that adults know,'' says Neil Postman in The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Dell, $3. 95). ''In the Middle Ages there were no children because there existed no means for adults to know exclusive information. In the Age of Gutenberg, such a means developed. In the Age of Television, it is dissolved.'' This provocative and vigorously argued book promotes the importance of childhood while it laments its loss.

William Goldman is a most successful screenwriter (''All the President's Men, '' ''The Marathon Man''), and Adventures in the Screen Trade (New York: Warner Books, $9.95) is his avowedly personal look at the film industry. This book is full of anecdotes and inside information on the production of movies and also contains the complete screenplay of ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,'' perhaps Goldman's best credit. Honest, funny, and irreverent.

In his introduction to The Complete Photographer (New York: Prentice-Hall, $ 14.95), Andreas Feininger writes that ''a photographer is more likely than not to produce disappointing pictures unless he knows how to use his 'technical' options in accordance with the pictorial requirements of the subject and the specific impression he wishes to create.'' The rest of the book should help photographers reduce their disappointment quotient.

William Golding, who we know best for ''Lord of the Flies,'' won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. So it is not surprising that some of his lesser known works are reappearing in print. The Scorpion God (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $3.95) is a collection of three short novels; A Moving Target (New York: Farrar Straus Girous, $7.95) contains numerous nonfiction pieces.

Those who are traveling this summer, and who want to avoid the generic motel/hotel experience, should look at America's Wonderful Little Hotels & Inns (New York: Congdon & Weed. Eastern Region: $9.95, Western Region: $7.95). Edited by Barbara Crossette, in includes tips on prices, services offered, and comments by satisfied and unsatisfied customers.

To most of us, America's big law firms are mystifying institutions, but they and the sort of law they practice are considerably demystified in James B. Stewart's The Partners (Warner Books, $7.95). Each chapter deals with a different law firm and a different area of the law; cases dissected involve such corporations as Kodak, IBM, Genentech, and Chrysler. In one case, a law firm plays a major part in the release of the hostages from Iran.

Norman Mailer's celebrity, his various obsessions (violence, boxing, himself) , his numerous ex-wives, his various literary achievements (including two Pulitzer Prizes), and much more is chronicled in Hilary Mills's Mailer (New York: McGraw-Hill, $8.95).

This is a popular biography, and a very well assembled one at that. Mills interviewed scores of people acquainted with Mailer and, as a result, gives us a thorough look at a complex and difficult but undeniably talented man.

William W. Warner won a Pulitzer Prize for ''Beautiful Swimmers,'' and his Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fishermen (New York: Penguin, $7. 95) is just as good a book. Warner spent much time on fishing boats and understands both the operation and the men who run it well. Although ''Distant Water'' has an unavoidably elegiac cast (how could it not, since it is about the demise of an industry and way of life?) it is captivating reading, exceptionally well-wrought nonfiction.

''The subject of this book,'' writes Edward T. Hall in The Dance of Life (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, $5.50), ''is time as culture, how time is consciously as well as unconsciously formulated, used and patterned in different cultures.'' This almost ineffable subject is given a thorough anthropological look by the author of ''The Hidden Dimension'' and ''Beyond Culture.''

Avey Johnson has lost touch with her roots, but she rediscovers them when she leaves a cruise ship in the Caribbean, and undertakes a voyage of self-discovery to the small island of Carriacou. Avey's story is told in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (New York: Dutton, $6.95), a strong and moving novel by the author of the recently issued ''Reena and Other Stories.''

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