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Between soft covers

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

No one knows exactly what it is, and no one likes to think it's an issue in the United States, but, yes, America does have social classes, says Paul Fussell in Class (New York, Ballantine, $3.95), and he subjects the matter to detailed and quite funny examination. A person's car, speech, living room, what he or she serves at parties, what sports one plays, what magazines one reads - all these things and so many more form a composite of one's social status, according to Fussell. A sort of snooty and pretty accurate book.

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Bernard Malamud is an acknowledged master, one of those writers of our time whose work is sure to be alive in the future, and here, in The Stories of Bernard Malamud (New York, NAL/Plume, $7.95), are what he considers his 25 best stories. Better known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Malamud says in his introduction to this fine collection, ''If one begins early in life to make up and tell stories he has a better chance to be heard if he keeps them short.'' With him, we listen.

The tsuranagakobitozame is, at an average length of not quite six inches, the smallest known shark; the largest is the whale shark, which averages 35 feet in length and 10 tons in weight; and there are 300 other fishes (Did you know there is a false cat shark or a goblin shark?) included in this species. The Natural History of Sharks (New York, Nick Lyons Books/Schocken Books, $9.95) tells us this and a great deal more, in readable fashion, about these always-moving creatures. This is solid natural history with good black-and-white illustrations (though I wish there were more).

One of today's funniest and most unusual cartoonists is Roz Chast, whose work appears in The New Yorker, Mother Jones, National Lampoon, and Psychology Today. It is collected in Parallel Universes (New York, Harper & Row, $7.95). The 131 drawings in this book reveal a socially aware wit and a remarkably cogent silliness. You're missing something if you don't know Chast's work.

''I find,'' writes Ronald Blythe in Characters and Their Landscapes (New York , Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $5.95), ''that I have two states of local landscape consciousness. The first I would call instinctive and unlettered, a mindfulness of my own territory which has been artlessly and sensuously imbibed. On top of this I have a country which I have deduced or discovered from scientific, sociological, aesthetic and religious forays into its depths.'' Other writers are deeply affected by the landscapes they, and thus their characters, inhabit, and Blythe explores this matter in relation to such writers as Thomas Hardy, William Hazlitt, and Leo Tolstoy. An engaging work by a fine British critic.

Bob Greene is a relentlessly American writer who writes about teen-agers hanging out in shopping malls as easily as he writes about the Susan B. Anthony dollar or rock star Bob Seger. American Beat (New York, Penguin, $5.95) collects 88 of Greene's short essays, all of which were written for Esquire, Greene's syndicated column with the Chicago Tribune, or, in some cases, the Chicago Sun-Times. ''I make my living by going out and seeing things. Then,'' says Greene, ''I write stories about what I saw.'' Good ones, too.

Names like Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Eugene Atget, and Dorothea Lange conjure up various images of documentary photography. These famous photographers and others are the subject of the nine essays that make up Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography (Carmel, Calif., Friends of Photography, $12). This volume, edited by David Featherstone, contains nothing startling, just nine different ways of looking at this genre.

Joe Bailey, the hero of Oakley Hall's Corpus of Joe Bailey (New York, Arbor House, $10.95), suffered through the Great Depression and World War II in southern California. Marvelously detailed, this is a boy-growing-into-manhood novel of the best kind. It presents a well-drawn picture of everyday life as it was in Joe Bailey's time and place. Out of print for roughly 30 years, this moving novel is again available for a new audience.

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The Almanac of American History (New York, Perigee Books, $10.95), edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., is one of those books that lives by chronology and fact. It divides American history into five sections. If you want to know what happened on Dec. 10, 1913, for example - Elihu Root won the Nobel Prize for his work as secretary of war - this is the book for you. Facts, facts, and more facts.

Well, yes, the Iowa Review is a literary quarterly, but its most recent number, One Hundred Years After Huck (Iowa City, Iowa, Iowa Review, $5), for which Pulitzer Prize-winner James Alan McPherson served as guest editor, is as good as most collections of its kind. All 17 of the stories are by men. The writing quality is uneven, but on balance the stories are strong. And, though many of the writers are not well known, some show evidence that they are on their way to publishing collections of their own. Those with collections already include Robley Wilson Jr., Leon Forrest, T. Coraghessan Boyle, and John Edgar Wideman.

Albert Samson is not a tough guy like some private eyes, but he is a private eye nonetheless, operating out of Indianapolis. This laconic shamus, created by Michael Z. Lewin, is featured in Ask the Right Question and The Way We Die Now (New York, Perennial/Harper & Row, $3.50 each). The latter deals with a Vietnam veteran gone (apparently) wrong; the former concerns a teen-age girl's search for her biological father.

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