HERE IS A BIG, profusely illustrated book compiled, so the authors say in a brief preface, "to help travelers find places associated with the lives and works of writers." For its design by Pam Forde Graphics and its general appearance I have nothing but praise. It is clearly printed on coated stock with three wide columns to the page. Usually the third column and part of the other two are devoted to pictures, mostly photographs, of American authors and the houses where they lived, or else to often revealing quotations from their works. The sumptuous jacket, in four colors, shows the Victorian interior of the Mark Twain Memorial Library in Hartford. The book lies open without one's having to look for paperweights. It is heavier than I like a book to be, having a coffee-table weight of more than four pounds--but how could that be avoided when there are halftone illustrations on every page?

About the text I have many reservations, though I hate to express them, remembering as I do that Eugene Ehrlich and Gorton Carruth worked hard on the book for four years. They sent out thousands of questionnaires_to authors, to local libraries, to chambers of commerce_and put their mass of information in areas, too, that deserve mention, among them the Ozarks, the Colorado Rockies, Marin County in California, and the coast south of San Francisco. This failure to deal with areas might lead to confusion for the traveler. I looked up Annisquam, Gloucester, and Rockport, three adjoining towns on Cape Ann that have been popular with writers. All three are listed, but the alphabet puts Annisquam on page 27, Gloucester on 47, and Rockport on 57, with more pages between them than there would be tenths of miles on the odometer. It might have been simpler to give a long entry to Cape Ann, with cross-references to the various towns. And could one find those towns in the front seat of a car or by the dim bedside lamp of a motel room?

Another category of places to interest the literary traveler consists of libraries that maintain important collections of authors' papers. Some of those libraries are the Houghton and the John F. Kennedy in the Boston area, the Beinecke at Yale, the Morgan Library in New York City (as well as the splendid Berg Collection at the Public Library), and of course the vast Congressional Library. Others--I have to cut the list short--are the Princeton University Library, the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, the Newberry Library in Chicago, and the oil-endowed manuscript collection of the University of Texas. A reader of the Guide will find some of these mentioned in passing, but he would never guess that there are extensive collections of literary papers at the universities of Tulsa and Wyoming. He couldn't even find a reference to the great Huntington Library unless he happened to know that it was in the little town of San Marino, a dot on the California road map next to Pasadena.

How many towns are omitted from the index in spite of their having close associations with writers! York Harbor ME (to print its name index fashion). Norwich VT, with its little band of dedicated poets. Manchester Center VT, editorial address of the fascinating Country Journal. Northampton MA, seat of Smith College. Amenia NY, where Lewis Mumford philosophizes. Mystic CT . . . I started to compile a list of places omitted, but it soon became too long. Already I had looked for the little Connecticut town where I have lived for 50 years. Sherman has attracted a number of fairly prominent writers, but it doesn't appear in the index of places and I felt wounded in my local patriotism. It wasn't much solace to find my name in the second index, that of authors, for it was listed in different connections and my literary friends in Sherman, including Matthew Josephson and Robert M. Coates, had been as if abolished.

That second index disturbed me by its omissions, but almost as much by the authors it chose to include. I couldn't find in it the names of such famous historians as Charles A. Beard or Brooks Adams, but I did find Frank R. Adams, of whom I learned by referring to the text that he is chiefly remembered (not by me) "for the lyrics to the popular song 'I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now.' " I doubt that Messrs. Ehrlich and Carruth should be accused of having prejudices, except a weak one against historians. Perhaps they include too many authors of mysteries and ranch romances. They follow the Beats in all their peregrinations; especially they like Jack Kerouac, who rolled across the broad country like a tumbleweed, sometimes lodging against a barbed-wire fence for a week or two months. Under Kerouac's name they list 23 places of residence, nine of these in New York City. Among our classical writers they prefer the peregrines--Mark Twain, for example--to those like Emerson who spent most of their lives in one hallowed shrine.

One of their problems was a simple matter of geography. They were including a section on each of the 50 states, but some of these had more sand or sagebrush than literary associations. Obviously they had to be more restrictive with New York and New England writers, whose names would crowd the page, than with those who wrote in the mountain or prairie states. Nevada must have been a challenge, since for its first century it had fewer people than any other state in the Union. Until 1950 it had produced only one distinguished writer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who worked within its borders. Our two authors met the challenge by giving space to Clark and then by making an entry for every town where Mark Twain had spent two weeks or Hemingway had once passed a night. Their entry for Elko reads in part: Ernest Hemingway, his wife Mary, and their friend A. E. Hotchner . . . stopped overnight on March 16, 1959, in this northeastern Nevada town on Route 80. They stayed at the Stockman's Hotel, the largest casi-no-hotel in town and still operating at 340 Commercial Street. --So much for Elko, to which I shall not make a literary pilgrimage.

I have niggled too much about the faults of this handsome book. In spite of its faults--and I might have mentioned others--the Literary Guide is the first comprehensive work in its field, and it leaves us with general impressions of what the literary life has been in America. Let me mention a few of these as a supplement to the authors' brief remarks in their preface.

American writers have been born in almost every populated region of the country. In childhood and early youth they have acquired the picture of life that will reappear in their books. During their twenties, the difficult years for anyone who works with words, they have moved to any city where they could earn their livings.

If they were born between 1870 and 1900, that city was usually New York. From 1890 till 1930 New York was the almost undisputed center of literary life in the English-speaking sector of this continent. Twice its supremacy was rather briefly challenged: during the 1920s by Chicago with its new group of vigorous writers--most of whom ended by moving east--and during the 1930s by Paris, which became a holy city for writers under 30 --that is, if they could earn the price of passage on a cabin-class liner. New York, however, was still the only city on this continent where a young writer could be certain of meeting others who spoke his language and followed his trade.

The situation began to change during the Depression years when the government undertook to keep penniless writers alive--as if they were penniless carpenters--by enrolling them in the Federal Writers' Project. As a concession to congressmen, the Project was established separately in each of the by-then 48 states. Young writers who wanted to join it had to stay close to home, where they could receive a very small federal subsidy while working on the various state guides. That was a strong encouragement to regionalism.

For a time during World War II New York replaced Paris as the international center of literature and art, but afterward its centrality was threatened in an unexpected fashion: by the educational boom that was fostered by the GI Bill of Rights. Young writers attended local universities while being supported (this time more generously than during the Depression) by checks from Washington. Many of them took advanced degrees and found teaching posts when money from the GI Bill ran out for them. Every big university town, and many small ones, became a literary center, full of talk about the new fiction, the New Criticism (then the still newer), and how to interpret postmodern poetry. New York remained the center of American publishing houses and magazines, not much alarmed by new rivals in Washington and on the Pacific Coast, but living in New York had ceased to be every writer's dream.

So that has been the geographical pattern of American literature in the 20th century: first concentration, more and more of it, thennmore and more dispersion (though chiefly to university towns). This double movement provides an occasion for The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States. In spite of many faults it is the first and only book in its needed field.