Between soft covers

Never read a book that is not a year old. - Ralph Waldo Emerson Rarely have I come across a book as learned, as enriching, and as interesting as Keith Thomas's Man and the Natural World (Pantheon, New York, $10.95). Thomas quilts together bits from literature, psychology, philosophy, history, and other disciplines to show us the place of man in nature as perceived by writers and thinkers from the 16th century on. Thomas's style is witty and scholarly but always readable, and this extraordinary synthesis is intellectual history of the finest sort. Highly recommended.

The personal and the factual commingle comfortably in The Klamath Knot (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, $8.95), David Rains Wallace's study of myth and evolution as they relate to that lovely group of mountains in northern California and southern Oregon. Wallace's manner is modest but his scope is large, and, in the tradition of Loren Eiseley and Aldo Leopold, he raises question after important question on the nature of nature.

Graham King also raises a lot of questions, but about the very different and very familiar subject of family snapshots in Say Cheese: Looking at Snapshots in a New Way (Dodd, Mead, New York, $13.95).

King begins by asking whether ''there is anybody alive today who hasn't been photographed?'' and proceeds to discuss the meanings of snapshots, necessary accompanists to the rituals of our lives, in considerable detail. King treats photographic history, photographic practice, folklore, technical matters, and the incorporation of the snapshot aesthetic into the world of art photography.

The Sound of the City (Pantheon, New York, $7.95), says Charles Gillette, ''attempts to identify the circumstances that produced rock and roll.'' To that end, he provides play lists from 1946 to 1971 and capsule descriptions of hundreds of record labels. There are also indexes for songs, films, albums, names, and record labels. A thorough and readable reference.

Don DeLillo is a very good but neglected American novelist, as well as being a funkily contemporary writer, and three of his novels from the mid-1970s are now available in paper. Players, Running Dog, and Ratner's Star (Vintage, New York, $5.95, $6.95, and $7.95, respectively) each shows different sides of DeLillo the stylist, but all three novels are sharply satiric in what they say about our society.

Many publishers are producing series reprinting neglected contemporary literature, among them Arbor House and Penguin, and what looks to be a very fine collection is coming from Vintage (New York) in its Vintage Contemporaries line.

This month will see Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City ($5.95), Raymond Carver's Cathedral ($4.95), Janet Hobhouse's Dancing in the Dark ($5.95), and Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga ($6.95).

Next month, books by Renata Adler, James Crumley, Paule Marshall, and Thomas McGuane will be out.

August the month is just done, but August the novel by Judith Rossner (Warner Books, New York, $4.50) is not. The novel, first a best seller in hard cover, now a best seller in paper, is a moving story about a psychiatrist and a teen-age patient. Patients are not the only people with problems.

Still the best book to come out of the Vietnam war is Michael Herr's Dispatches (Avon, New York, $3.95). The style is rock-and-roll 1960s, the view deservedly cynical. If any book about Vietnam lasts, it will be this one, a truly great piece of war (new) journalism.

Best Sports Stories 1984, edited and published by The Sporting News (St. Louis, $9.95), collects photographs and stories from newspapers and magazines across the country. The 40 stories cover baseball, football, tennis, yachting, polo, golf, boxing, track and field, horse racing, and auto racing, and the best of them are very good indeed. A nice anthology to dip into.

Without question one of the most fascinating photographers to come along in some time is Cindy Sherman, whose first monograph, Cindy Sherman (Pantheon, New York, $16.95), with an introduction by Peter Schjeldahl and an afterword by Michael Danoff, shows her many masks and postmodernist whimsies. Sherman's subject is always herself - she is a consummate actress, and the overall self-consciousness of her art is overwhelming and, finally, impressive. An original talent whose creations are wonderfully and irrevocably herself.

Now that I've finally caught on to Frank Parrish in Bait on the Hook (Perennial/Harper & Row, New York, $2.95), I have to go back and read his three other books.

This suspense novel features poacher Dan Mallett, who becomes involved in a murder and tries to find the murderer by traversing the countryside with nine-year-old Anna Vandervelde, a thoroughly engaging and precocious child, while simultaneously avoiding the coppers. Funny, with a good ending.

For those in the mood to reembrace the classics, Oxford University Press has five new offerings in its World's Classics series: The Awkward Age, by Henry James ($4.95), The Russian Master and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov ($5.95), Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackeray ($6.95), A Sentimental Journey, by Lawrence Sterne ($3.95), and Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad, all books that should be read more often by more people.

Think what you will of George Will's politics, he remains as good a writer on politics as there is. This is demonstrated in Statecraft as Soulcraft (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, New York, $5.95), a book whose contents, says Will, ''constitute a complaint against the modern world.'' Conservative? Of course; but well formulated.

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