If you're looking for a way to feel good about our country again, read Wallace Stegner.

His writings can make you believe once more that someone can be virtuous, courageous and patriotic, without being arrogant, preachy or sentimental. There was nothing flashy about Stegner. He was simply rock solid - and one of this century's wisest and most respected writers. He was also prolific - with 16 works of fiction and 12 in non-fiction before he died in 1993.Today, his stature keeps growing - a sure sign that his work will endure. And now his son, author Page Stegner, has compiled his father's biggest collection of essays, including 15 that have never appeared in a book before.

"Marking the Sparrow's Fall: Wallace Stegner's American West" offers some of the most satisfying reading I've encountered in a while.

To read Stegner is to be in the presence of a master. He conveyed authority and moral earnestness as he appealed to his reader's best instincts. He possessed rare and comforting wisdom, and he could be realistic and even angry about society's wrongdoings but did not succumb to cynicism. He was grateful for what life had given him and hopeful - perhaps guardedly - about the future.

Stegner was a Westerner, and he knew that vast region better than anybody. In its promise and problems he saw an uncanny reflection of the nation as a whole.

He loved the West's diverse people and places, its stark beauty and open landscapes where "one feels the empty spaces between the stars." He cherished its sense of freedom, but he also knew that cooperation was necessary for survival. The scarcity of water makes life fragile, and he also feared for the fate of its wilderness areas:

"We have spoiled a lot of the West as we have spoiled other parts of America, and it is a country that does not quickly heal. Nevertheless, every time I drive into it, any part of it, by any road, there comes some moment, generally in the early morning when the flat light reaches and reaches to pick out mountains or mesas half hidden beyond the rounding edge of the world, when I think, My God! There it is! There it still is!"

Born in 1909, Stegner considered himself homeless for much of his life. He lived in 20 places in eight states, plus two spots in Canada.

In 1945, he became head of Stanford University's prestigious writing program, where he developed some of America's finest authors. The program is now named in his honor.

Stanford was also where he owned his first house. But he later decided that his home was Salt Lake City (where he had graduated from the University of Utah):

"I recently had the experience of recognizing, and with pleasure, what the city meant to me, but I was not heartbroken to leave either it or that youth of mine that it embalms, and I do not necessarily yearn to return to either. It does not destroy me with a sense of lost green childhood or of any intimation of immortality long gone and irrecoverable. There is only this solid sense of having had or having been or having lived something real and good and satisfying, and the knowledge that having had or been or lived these things I can never lose them again. Home is what you can take away with you."