Between soft covers

Never read a book that is not a year old. - Ralph Waldo Emerson If you are the sort of person who, upon hearing the sound of an airplane soaring overhead, is eager to know exactly what sort of plane that is up there, what you need is A Field Guide to Airplanes (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, $12.95). M. R. Montgomery and Gerald Foster have assembled over 300 entries, everything from a de Havilland DHC-3 Otter and the various Learjets to a Boeing 767 and military aircraft like the Lockheed U-2. Although you're not likely to see many of the latter, you will learn its specifications, uses, and a touch of history. The same goes for all other planes; grouping is by appearance.

What better year than this to explore the now phenomenal connections between Politics and Money (New York, Collier Books, $5.95)? Elizabeth Drew, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is one of our most astute and forthright political journalists, and this book is up to her usual high standard. It is at times an almost horrifying book, but also one that those trying to understand modern-day politics need to read.

Viewers of public television this season are enjoying The Barchester Chronicles, a Masterpiece Theatre production distilled from a series of six novels by Anthony Trollope. Accompanying this fine drama is the reissue of some of this mid-Victorian author's novels, among them The Warden (New York, NAL/Signet Classic, $3.50), Barchester Towers (NAL/Signet Classic, $4.50), and Lady Anna (New York, Dover, $6.95). Those not familiar with Trollope, but partial to the richly textured 19th-century novel, will be delighted to discover this author, who was never quite sufficiently appreciated.

Music kindles memories for most of us, but in the case of Al Young it ignites them into lovely prose in Kinds of Blue (San Francisco, Creative Arts Book Company, $7.95). The musicians to whom Young produces short, essayistic responses include James Brown, Phoebe Snow, George Gershwin, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Herbie Hancock, and Maurice Ravel, and the effects of the music send Young in many directions. He says, ''These are simply joyfully written pages conceived in the spirit of fun.'' They are also testimony by a man powerfully moved by music.

The holiday season approaches, and while it's very far from a new or unfamiliar book, perhaps it's time again to think of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (New York, Penguin, $3.95). This nice, illustrated reissue is a facsimile of the 1946 edition.'Tis the season, after all.

Between 1976 and 1980, David Lamb was a newspaper correspondent in Africa, traversing the continent routinely. His The Africans (New York, Vintage, $7.95) is, he says, ''part political travelogue, part contemporary history, and wholly personal,'' an account about a land that, if it can harness its potential, might well be ''the grand prize of the third world.'' Lamb talked with all manner of Africans; he has a good eye for facts and details; and this is an engrossing, newsy book.

There are six short stories in Harum Scarum (St. Paul, Minn., Coffee House Press Books, $8.95), a book whose title derives from, yes, an Elvis Presley movie, and whose author is Keith Abbott. The situations in the stories are the sort that Bob Seger has put to song: late teen-age tales of the back seat, the debatable marriage, the vagaries of friendship. Good but not great stories, they are nonetheless housed in a lovely book, something small presses typically do and of which larger publishers should take note. Illustrations by Gaylord Schanilec.

John Higham is an exceptionally able social historian, and in his latest work , Send These To Me (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, $8.95), he revises and further illuminates the immigrant experience in America. This volume first appeared in 1975, but it has now lost two chapters, added a new one, and incorporates much new material. This country is not quite a ''melting pot,'' but it is a country of immigrants, and no one understands the cultural implications of this better than Higham.

The reviewer for this newspaper stated in his review of The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (New York, Vintage, $6.95) that ''Paule Marshall is one of the best novelists writing in the United States.'' And most people will agree that this is her best book. This one, originally published in 1969, tells the story of American anthropological researchers in the Caribbean: distilled, this novel's essence depicts a classic powerful-country-vs.-third-world-country drama. Merle Kinbona is an unforgettable and strong woman - perhaps Marshall's finest - and has character enough to carry the novel.

''Science seeks to create pictures of the order in nature which are so logically elegant that we cannot doubt that they are true,'' writes Richard Morris in Dismantling the Universe (New York, Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, $6.95 ). But what is thought to be true by scientists can and does change (the earth was the center of the solar system for some time, remember?), and what Morris is interested in exploring is ''the nature of scientific discovery, its logic and illogic, and its relation to other kinds of human creativity.'' He does it beautifully, too.

Galen Rowell's Mountains of the Middle Kingdom (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, $19.95) is a spectacular book. Its subject is the high peaks of China and Tibet. That exotic portion of the world is illustrated with both a strong text and many luminous color photographs by Rowell. A sense of both past and present lives in this very, very good book.

Originally published in 1957, William Humphrey's Home From the Hill (New York , A Laurel/Seymour Lawrence Book, $4.50) was well enough received to be nominated for a National Book Award. Now it is ready for a new generation of readers. This book, amazingly a first novel, has scenes of stunning dramatic impact, most of which swirl around a trying father-son relationship. A high-drama ending and great energy here.

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