GREAT RIVERS OF THE WORLD, edited by Alexander Frater (Little Brown, $24.95). A river cuts a wonderful cross section of a country; it offers a moving platform from which to examine the inner workings of civilization along the banks. London's Observer magazine chose 11 great rivers and sent a fleet of journalists from headwaters to delta. Their observations range from the sharp-tongued social criticism of Paul Theroux (cruising China's Yangtze River with a group of millionaries) to an East-West encounter on Russia's Volga by Bruce Chatwin, to the storytelling life on the Mississippi by Libby Purves. The faraway and exotic are the real draw, though: Nicholas Wollaston's evocative accounts of Africa's Zambezi and Zaire rivers, or Geoffrey Moorhouse's spirited journey down India's Ganges. The photographs by Colin Jones are not well served by layout or reproduction, but the writers succeed in finding the life in these waters. AFRICA ADORNED, by Angela Fisher (Abrama, $45). Baubles, bangles, and beads in profusion, rings, necklaces, anklets, and amulets, layers of veils and minimal caches-sex -- human adornment of every color, shape, and purpose fills the oversized pages of this magnificent volume. Angela Fisher takes these decorations seriously, examining their arcane uses in ritual and ceremony, their more familiar roles in establishing status and sexual attactiveness. The book is organized by area and tribe, and the jewelry, hairstyles, and body decoration are mostly presented in context: on the body and in a cultural setting. With 457 illustrations -- 414 in full color -- Africa Adorned is itself an ornament for any bookshelf. THE GREEKS, edited and translated by Kimon Friar, photographs by John Veltri (Doubleday, $24,95). "To even scratch the surface," says photographer John Veltri, "you must spend much time traveling, building up a composite image of mountain ranges, hazardous roads, fertile plains, winter snow, burning sun and glittering summer surf." That composite image of Greece is strikingly presented in four elemental chapters: Earth (the land and the architecture); Water (the attitudes that have been born of the sea); Fire (the people of rural Greece); air (the contrasts and ironies of a changing society). There is no narrative text; instead the words of modern Greece's greatest poets add an impressionistic layer of meaning to the stony reality of the black-and-white photographs. NEW ZEALAND, by Bill Saunders, photographs by Ray Joyce (Rand McNally, $40). Rand McNally has served up a geography lesson in large format -- but, oh, what geography! A luscious variety of landscape is here -- fron the volcanic top of Cape Reinga at the far end of North Island, to the steep-sided fjords of the glaciated western coast of South Island, to the dwindling Victoriana of the capital city of Wellington. Photographer Ray Joyce has traced New Zealand's extraordinarily diverse coastline in his series of 300 full-color aerial photos, and Bill Saunders' text follows that circumnavigation. This is not the book to read for insight into people, cultural background, or current-day politics. It is the place to glory in an island patchwork of spectacular natural wonders, many still untouched by man. PAPUA NEW GUINEA, by James Siers (Millwood/St. Martin's Press, $30). A stone age people plunged into the 20th century -- that contrast sums up our fascination with Papua New Guinea. Photojournalist James Siers tried to give some idea of the country's diversity: impenetrable highland, lowland, and coastal terrain; a thousand tribes and clans (including headhunters and groups undiscovered until the 1960s); 700 languages. He also examines the political and social issues confronting this Pacific nation. Siers offers an outsider's view, and if his book lacks organization and real depth, it also -- with the help of 94 pages of color photos -- succeeds in whetting our appetite to know more about "this last unknown." RAJASTHAN, by Sylvia A. Matheson, photograpahy by Roloff Beny (Vendome Press, $50). Before he died in the spring of 1984, world-renowned photographer Roloff Beny turned his cameras on the sumptuous temples, palaces, and people of Rajasthan, in northwestern India. He captured all the exotic richness of this Land of Kings, from the tranquility of its intricately carved lakeside pavilions to the ruins of fortresses whose charred walls testify to a violent history of invading armies and rival maharajas. The spiritual side is represented, too, in colorful festivals as well as in ornate shrines and temples sacred to Hindus, Jains, and Muslims. Sylvia Matheson's text delves thoroughly into the region's history, archaeologym, religions, and arts. But it is the splendor of the photographs -- 103 in color -- that brings to life the romantic allure of Rajasthan. SRI LANKA, by Nigel Palmer, photograpahy by Tim Page (Thames and Hudson, $29.95). The spirit of Buddhism suffuses every page of this sensitive book, as it shapes the life of Sri Lanka itself. Tim Page, better known for his Vietnam War photojournalism, has created a portfolio of luminous images of the "resplendent land" off India's southern tip. All Page's shots -- a streetside jumble of lawyers' shingles, a flash of independence day bananers, monks reverently painting the eye of a new Buddha -- shine with the same inner light. Nigel Palmer's narrative perfectly compliments the 92 color plates. He manages to summarize history, landscape, national character, and spiritual life succinctly and with grace and wit.