FICTION

Heart of Darkness , by Joseph Conrad (Dover, $1). If you did a double-take on the price of this volume, rest assured. Dover has initiated a new line of books for a buck apiece, with Conrad's masterly novella plus a number of other classics, among them Edward FitzGerald's eminently quotable poem, "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam"; Shaw's witty play, "Arms and the Man"; selected poems by Emily Dickinson; and Jack London's Klondike classic, "The Call of the Wild." The next time you hear someone complaining that "books cost too much," tell him to get hip to Dover Thrift Editions.

Voices from the Plains , by Gianni Celati (Serpent's Tail, $10.95). This slender paperback, with a ghostly hitchiker on its cover, manages to contain 30 stories in 158 pages; nearly all of them are eerie, beautiful and disturbing. The narrator's serene, matter-of-fact tone only adds to their mystery, transforming these short-shorts into urban fairy tales. In one story an old scholar, unable to bear unhappy endings, rewrites the conclusions to the world's sadder literary masterpieces. In another a little boy and girl, obsessed with discovering adults who are not boring, wind up in a Twilight Zone world of fog, where they are unable to see their way out. At first none of these miniatures seems particularly consequential, but a good many prove very hard to forget.

NONFICTION

Soho Walls: Beyond Graffiti , by David Robinson (Thames and Hudson, $18.95). For about 10 years David Robinson has been recording the work of artists in the "public galleries" of the Soho streets. "What I found was both a product of a particular point in history . . . and part of a long tradition of public art going back even as far as the cave paintings," Robinson writes. This is a collection of almost 90 photographs of wall art. Some of the works use as their foundation torn wall posters that are painted, scrawled on or otherwise added to to make collages. Some is work directly painted onto the wall. Still others are stencils -- a man with an umbrella, Cupid, a dinosaur, a guitar. Some of it is serious and some of it is whimsical. Almost all of it is eye-catching.

Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr, , by Sammy Davis Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar (Noonday, $9.95). First published 25 years ago, this is the bitter-sweet story of Sammy Davis Jr.'s life, from his years as a child star in vaudeville -- he was on stage at 4 -- to his adult successes on television, on Broadway and in Hollywood and Las Vegas. The years that Davis -- who died in May -- writes about here were years in which he was often the victim of racism. Stardom, he tells us, was part of his defense againt racism: "I've got to get so big, so powerful, so famous that the day will come when they'll look at me and see a man, and then somewhere along the way they'll notice he's a Negro."

Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues , by Paul Oliver (Cambridge University Press, $14.95; hardcover $39.50). Some of the issues Paul Oliver considers in this revised edition of his book first published in 1960 are the function of the blues as entertainment, the personalizing of lyrics by individual singers and the relationship between singing and instrumental expression. All this has, of course, the potential to be overly scholarly. But Oliver quotes often from blues lyrics, and includes telling facts that show the relationship of the blues to life. These lines from Memphis Minnie's "In My Girlish Days" -- "I flagged a train, didn't have a dime,/ Tryin' to run away from that home of mine,/ I didn't know no better, oh boy, in my girlish days" -- are following by citations from studies that showed there were 200,000-500000 child hoboes in the 1920s and '30s in the U.S.

"Dear Master": Letters of a Slave Family , edited by Randall M. Miller (University of Georgia, $15.95). Slavery, writes Randall M. Miller in his preface to the paperback edition of this book, was not a monolithic institution. There were those slaveowners, like John Hartwell Cocke, who were ambivalent about slavery. Cocke freed some of his slaves, including Peyton Skipwith and his children. They settled in Liberia. Others, including Skipwith's brother George, remained in slavery, working on an experimental Alabama plantation where, Miller says, Cocke hoped to prepare his slaves for freedom. This is a collection of letters from both Skipwith families to Cocke dating from 1834-1865, "probably the largest and fullest epistolary record left by an American slave family."

Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker , by R.M.W. Dixon (University of Chicago Press, $14.95). In 1963 a young graduate student from Edinburgh arrived in Australia's tropical North Queensland to record what was left of the area's local languages. Over the next 15 years Dixon made numerous trips back to Queensland. As a result he developed close relationships with the elderly aborigines who were sometimes the last speakers of languages thousands of years old. He also was able to publish grammars and dictionaries of these now lost tongues. Although Dixon's delight in the complex beauty of languages like Yidiny and Dyirbal is contagious, a strong undercurrent in this account of his experiences is his anger at the "savage dispossession" of the aborigines' land, culture and beliefs by ignorant, paternalistic government officials.

Looking the Tiger in the Eye: Confronting the Nuclear Threat , by Carl B. Feldbaum and Ronald J. Bee (Vintage, $10.95). The authors of this streamlined analysis of nuclear policy are generalists, and their book is readily accessible to the lay reader. Part history of the nuclear age, part philosophy of nuclear containment, Looking the Tiger in the Eye is an admirably compact introduction to a complex and emotion-laden subject. The title comes from an apothegm by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who cautioned the public against shying away from full confrontation with nuclear issues.

Language in Literature , by Roman Jakobson; edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Harvard, $14.95; cloth, $25). Jakobson was one of the most influential of all modern literary theorists. A prominent member of the Russian Formalists as a young man, he subsequently became a guiding force for the equally celebrated Prague Linguistic Circle, an elder statesman of structuralism and a distinguished teacher in this country. This collection gathers all his essays that relate to literary theory, including such epochal articles as "Linguistics and Poetics," "Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry" and the famous, almost notorious, close-reading, written with Claude Levi-Strauss, of Baudelaire's poem, "Les Chats." Also featured are pieces on myth, translation and semiotics.