`The Proud Highway'

By Hunter S. Thompson

Ballantine; $19.95.

New in paperback is this collection of letters written by Thompson from 1955 to 1967. That's right. The book is nearly 700 pages long (and pricey), and he's not finished yet. Thompson wrote great, entertaining letters, even when he was apologizing for his notoriously skewed behavior or haggling with editors over money.

Here is a partial list of his correspondents: Joan Baez, Tom Wolfe, Lyndon Johnson (whom he scolded for the Vietnam War), Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Charles Kuralt, Herb Caen and Ken Kesey. The secret of this book, however, is not just that he wrote letters but that he was deeply aware of their pending importance. He knew that someday you might want to read the odd jottings of his early life, so he made carbon copies of each letter, 20,000 in all (for every one included here, editor Douglas Brinkley says, 15 were cut). They are an offbeat record of a decade of American life by one of the most entertaining bad boys of them all.

- By Anne Stephenson

The Arizona Republic

`Where the Sea Used to Be'

By Rick Bass

Houghton Mifflin; $25.

Rick Bass is an oil geologist and environmentalist whose books exalt the world of nature and the practice of solitude. A few years ago, he spent a year or so in a tiny, isolated, unelectrified community of 30 human inhabitants in the Yaak Valley of northern Montana, an experience from which his essay "Notes From Montana" was drawn.

"Where the Sea Used to Be" is Bass' first full-length novel, and it combines the author's knowledge of oil exploration with his experience in a snowbound village near the Canadian border.

Bass intends this book to be taken for a kind of natural realism, a psychological, Nietzschean duel to the death among strong-willed figures whose characters drive them to tragedy.

But Bass' aim is undermined by his propensity for a self-conscious, epic-heroic mysticism that at times approaches self-parody.

- By Richard Bernstein

The New York Times

`Rome: Oxford Archaeological Guides'

By Amanda Claridge

Oxford; $17.95.

This handsome (if decidedly formal in tone) guide begins with a historical overview of ancient Rome and a glossary of building materials and techniques, architectural orders and major public works.

Claridge proceeds through the city's major archaeological sites, offering maps, diagrams, historical background, travel advice and museum information. Included are the Roman Forum, the Upper Via Sacra, the Palatine, the Imperial Forums, the Campus Martius, the Capitoline hill, Circus Flaminius to Circus Maximus, the Colosseum valley and Esquiline hill, the Caelian hill and the Via Appia. This is one of four new books in a series.

- By Anne Stephenson

The Arizona Republic